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.