In July 1986, nine months before he died, I met the Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin. He was in shirtsleeves for the interview and the concentration camp tattoo 174517 was visible on his left forearm. (‘A typical German talent for classification,’ he tartly observed.) If This is a Man, Levi’s chronicle of survival, offers a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who have survived the Nazi camps have the right to forgive or condemn.
Attempts to recreate the Final Solution on screen were mostly a ‘macabre indecency’, said Levi. The 1978 Hollywood television soap opera Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, helped to break 33 years of near-silence in Germany surrounding Hitler’s war against the Jews, but Levi feared the dramatisation would cheapen the enormity of Auschwitz. Once that happens, the process of forgetting has already begun. The 1970s saw a rash of other films that falsified the nature of Nazi violence. Tawdry box-office hits such as The Night Porter and Salon Kitty played on a lurid fantasy of sexual relations between the SS and their prisoners. With their paraphernalia of whips and jackboots, the films were ‘swastika chic — the stuff of pornography’, Levi judged.
Son of Saul, the debut film by the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, 39, defies our tendency to oversimplify and judge. Based on true events, it tells of Jews who were forced to collaborate at Auschwitz in order to survive. In return for clothes and food, the camp’s Special Squads or Sonderkommandos had to shepherd fellow Jews to the gas chambers. Nemes’s film, which has won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, offers no crass explanations for how the Nazis degraded others into their moral corruption. As an Auschwitz guard says in If This is a Man: ‘Here there is no why.’
Saul (played by the Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig) works at a furious ‘SS trot’ to ensure the efficient assembly-line gassing of human beings. While hosing down a gas chamber with his Sonderkommando unit one day in October 1944 he discovers the body of a child he thinks is his son. To save just one death from the industrial exploitation of Jewish corpses — their ashes and their teeth — would affirm human dignity. So Saul now risks everything to give the boy a dignified Jewish burial. By this late stage in the war the Nazi practice of extermination — Vernichtungswissenschaft — had become so refined that the condemned remained deceived until the doors shut on them in the false shower rooms. Shockingly, the film opens with sounds off-screen of wailing and banging on doors as Zyklon-B crystals (a pesticide used to kill rats) suffocate another trainload of Hungarian Jews.
Unlike Roberto Benigni’s offensively trite 1997 Nazi camp ‘comedy’ Life is Beautiful, the Hungarian film raises the question of whether fiction can do justice to the incredibility of Auschwitz. There have been other slaughters in recent times, but none was so ferocious, so total in its effect, as that willed by Hitler’s Germans in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe. But should such suffering be recreated for our entertainment? Is it morally permissible? The debate is not new.
Alain Resnais’ landmark documentary Night and Fog, released in 1955 to mark the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps, juxtaposed archive material with colour footage of the present-day sites of Auschwitz and Majdanek. For all its quiet power, the film feels slightly dated. Claude Lanzmann, who directed the nine-hour oral history Shoah, believes that archive photographs of piles of women’s hair and suitcases at Auschwitz have lost their emotive power. Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was dismissed by Lanzmann as a pietistic work that ‘trivialised’ the Jewish tragedy, but Son of Saul won his admiration. ‘It’s very original, very unusual,’ Lanzmann said, adding, ‘It’s a film that gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando.’ Really? How can a film communicate that degree of meaningless evil?
For almost two hours we stare into Saul’s fear-ridden face as he hurries round Auschwitz in search of a rabbi for the boy’s burial. Shot in jerky 35mm, the film pulls the viewer into a shouting, clanging babel of barked German orders and bursts of Magyar and other east European tongues. There is no music, but sickly yellow-green shadows contribute to a sense of Auschwitz as a vile and isolated instance of human infamy. The ‘machinery of extermination’ (as Lanzmann calls it) is accentuated by a soundscape of clanking cattle-car doors and a metallic scraping of shovels. Indistinctly glimpsed details of German uniforms and naked gassed bodies suggest a Dantean hellpit.
Son of Saul has the visceral impact of Elem Klimov’s 1985 war film Come and See. The absence of meaning or explanation for the Nazi camp’s purpose forces us to reflect on our cultural obsession with Nazi Germany and the destruction of European Jewry. Scarcely a year goes by without a film depicting yellow stars, stamping black boots and a sadistic SS overseer. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness: these are great movies up to a point. They are designed to promote catharsis and a roseate glow of hope in us, when the reality is that Hitler and his race-engineers did not allow for hope. At Auschwitz, anus mundi, the murder of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was made a civic virtue; in this way, Germany departed from the community of civilised human beings.
Seventy years on, we are still trying to understand the catastrophe that engulfed the Jews in the Hitlerite storm. Son of Saul, for all its evident originality, has been wrongly compared to Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film The Grey Zone, about the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. Primo Levi’s darkest (and most painfully argued) essay, ‘La zona grigia’, lent the title to this film, which stars Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel. Unfortunately, Hollywood celebrities jarr in films that seek to answer the central question: how the country that gave us Bach and Goethe was able to commit such a crime as murder all the Jews within its jurisdiction. The Grey Zone, with its maudlin violin score, cheapens as well as glamorises the Nazi atrocities.
Amid the abundant cinema of Nazi atrocity, however, Son of Saul is exemplary. Nemes does not attempt to recreate the more bestial aspects of Hitler’s demolition project. Instead, everything comes down to one man’s suffering. Saul’s face in close-up creates an extraordinary sense of communion and intimacy with the audience. His increasingly desperate attempts to bury the child are narrated without the prurient tenor of much ‘Holocaust’ cinema (Sophie’s Choice, Escape from Sobibor), yet we are dazed by the daring of his self-appointed mission to lay an innocent to rest. Son of Saul appears at a moment when the debate about film and the Nazi camps has been revived with the restoration of Sidney Bernstein’s documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, and Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall, which charts that film’s suppression by the British government after the war on grounds of shocking content.
Against the odds, Son of Saul has become Hungary’s biggest independent film at the box office, while Germany was pointedly hesitant to release a movie that might provoke levels of national guilt. For years after the war, German writers and film-makers neglected to refer by name either to the Nazis or their victims. (Instead of ‘Jews’, the novelist Heinrich Böll alluded coyly to ‘the lambs’.) German admonitions to ‘overcome the past’ and do the ‘labour of mourning’ (Trauerarbeit) will now include screenings of Laszlo Nemes’s taboo-breaking film. All life and death is in its burning images; let the images haunt us.