Representations of mass murder, especially in the visual arts, are subjected to a level of scrutiny befitting the significance of traumatic memory. “To write poetry after the holocaust is barbaric,” said German philosopher Theodor Adorno shortly after World War II. Poets responded in retaliation, some with their finest work, and Adorno offered a memorable retraction: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.” But what shape is that scream permitted to take, or is silence the more “appropriate” memorial? If you’re László Nemes, director of Son of Saul, the answer may be somewhere in between, as the tension between ethics and aesthetics in his depiction of the titular Sonderkommando, played by Géza Röhrig, manifests itself as a muffled squeal.
Nemes has expressed frustration with conventional depictions of the Holocaust, like Schindler’s List. That’s code for the sentimentality that Steven Spielberg’s embraces throughout his Oscar juggernaut, and it helps to explain Claude Lanzman’s championing of Son of Saul after its premiere at Cannes earlier this year. It may seem odd for Lanzman, a critic of graphic and sentimental representations of the Holocaust, to respond so strongly to a film where mass murder is so abundant and the main character, a Hungarian Jew, spends the duration of the story trying to find a rabbi to deliver the funeral prayer for a boy he delusionally believes to be his son. That is, until one realizes that Lanzman sees virtue in the way Nemes’s aesthetics defy direct representations of the Holocaust’s horrors and Saul’s existential plight.
Composed almost entirely of Jews, the Sonderkommando worked at death camps in exchange for special treatment, though none were guaranteed survival. If they were, it was almost certainly a lie. Son of Saul is unconcerned with passing judgment—like many did after World War II, most famously the German philosopher Hannah Arendt—on the Sonderkommando. Instead, Nemes’s camera affixes itself to Saul’s side in a kind of Dardennian lockstep, tracing in constricted close-up the ghoulish routines of the man’s day, from ushering unsuspecting Jews into gas chambers, to sorting through their personal belongings, to disposing of their bodies, so as to ostensibly give shape to his psychological duress.
Around Saul there’s only death, though the audience is pointedly never allowed to glimpse it directly in the face. After a boy miraculously survives the gas chamber, only to be subsequently suffocated by an SS guard, Saul becomes attached to him and devoted to giving him a proper burial. The camera then begins to worm its way through the gas chamber adjacent to which Saul lives, following him as he tries to find a rabbi, saving one from certain death only to then risk his own life in trying to sneak the man back into his living quarters—and all while helping to set into motion his fellow Sonderkommandos’ plan to explode their way out of Auschwitz.
As these plans braid together across the film’s narrative, and across Saul’s mind, the bodies of the dead, whether dragged out from gas chambers or falling into pits, register only as abstractions in the background of Nemes’s shots. The Germans, all prototypical cocks of the walk with merciless thirsts for violence, murder the Jews in their midst, but the camera is prone to catching Röhrig, or some random object within his view, calculatedly obscuring the exact moment when, say, an SS guard shoots a man point-blank in the head. Death isn’t foregrounded, only the perpetual fear of it as it registers on Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos’ faces.
The technical proficiency of this cavalcade of horrors, abundant in long takes and shot/reverse shots so seamlessly edited together as to give the sense of the film being a single movement, is undeniable. But Son of Saul’s meticulous orchestration calls attention to its dubious sense of purpose, which lies beyond human subjectivity. Saul’s struggle is one for agency, but his emotionlessness points less to recognizable human trauma than to Röhrig’s limitations as an actor. Röhrig may not make Saul’s delusions sufficiently comprehensible, but Nemes also doesn’t allow him to, as his aesthetics are geared toward fostering a sensorial rather than intellectual response. In resurrecting traumatic memory primarily for visceral effect, the film reveals itself as a simulation of the Holocaust death machine, aptly leaving one sick to one’s stomach, but also horrified by its simplification of reality.