This article was written on 19 Jan 2016, and is filled under Film & TV, Media.

“Son of Saul”: Holocaust 2015

With the inconceivable role played by the German concentration camp Sonderkommando as its premise, this current feature, winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’or, leads us squarely into the contemporary impasses that the enduring legacy of the Holocaust poses. We can, like its protagonist, Saul Ausländer, increasingly obsess on the Final Solution as a moral and systematic insult perpetrated against all of humanity; we can begin to imagine those small increments of dignity and recognition, such as ritual burial of the dead, that might restore what anomie and genocide (or “becoming-death”) have definitively ravaged. Or, fearing to betray the living through resolute duty to the dead, we might elect instead to hurdle forward at whatever the cost, in resistance to brute force and deadly repression.

“Son of Saul” is far less the rendition of a story, even a very odd one, a Sonderkommando’s frenetic efforts, amid impossible conditions—to arrange proper Jewish burial of a lad who emerges (at first alive) from the heaps of corpses produced, industrial-style, by the gas-chamber—than it is the cinematic creation of a virtual environment in which we dwell for the duration of the film. The particular virtual environment opened up by “Son of Saul” may well be the one we’d least like to inhabit in the world: it is a full-service concentration camp, and since it is in Poland, we may just as well assume it is Auschwitz, the jewel in the crown. We shuttle back and forth between the vestibule where prisoners strip and are stripped of their possessions, where promises of such basic amenities as hot soup or tea upon completion of their “showers” are held out to them; to the corpse-strewn gas-chamber itself, which must be voided and cleansed; to the lifts conveying loads of corpses (“Stücke,” or pieces) into the crematorium; to the “Canada” where appropriated possessions are sorted, shelved, and stored. The Sonderkommando, for an indeterminate reprieve on their immanent executions, furnish all the grunt labor demanded by this grisly operation: dragging corpses away, shoveling mounds of human ash into the river, disinfecting the gas-chamber in time for the next “shipment.”

The German soldiers in charge never allow the SK to flag in their industry (“Arbeiten! Arbeiten!”). The film is remarkable—and here it tips its hand more toward the tradition of Russian film-making (Tarkovsky, German) than toward Hollywood, Cinecittà, or Paris—in that simulating the environment and the experience of the death-camps is a far higher priority than telling the story, even such an intricate one as tacks the film together: Saul’s unwavering devotion to the human remains of a child who is most likely not his. Otherwise put: any narrative assembled by this artifact is as much pieced together from near-constant noise, brutality, chaos, annihilation, actual or threatened, and forced acceleration (“Schneller! Schneller!”) as it is the result of a coherent and fittingly allegorical story-line. This virtual environment may be the product of reconstruction, but what it simulates was, once upon a time, and remains, in the public Imaginary, only too real.

Such are the protracted horrors of this genocidal world that the camera’s eye, let alone our own, cannot dwell too long or too directly on what we know is transpiring in this place. Auschwitz is no Hermitage, but in the camera’s relentless movement, hand-held throughout the action-scenes that are the mainstay of the film, “Son of Saul” becomes the horrific counterpoint to Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” The cinematography is literally on amphetamines. “Son of Saul” spares us nothing of the auditory experience of command, intimidation, mockery, mass death-throes and beating against locked doors, shrieking, pleading, and shooting–the all too believable soundscape of military-industrial annihilation.

But within the visual domain, the film must, in the interest of its own possibility as a social artifact, to some degree curtail the realism and directness of its representation. To be sure, “Son of Saul” enlists us in bearing witness to the death-agony of the dying “Stücke,” their harrowing screams and pounding as the Zyklon-B takes effect, to heaps of corpses, to random shootings of prisoners when the assembly-line of death has reached capacity; but just as much is conveyed, visually, by constant close-ups of Saul’s and other recurrent characters’ faces as they go about servicing the machinery of genocide. The horrific logistics of Auschwitz—the human remains, ashes, etc., are, as it were, the in-motion marginalia to these talismanic faces, as on a medieval illuminated page. “Son of Saul,” in its tribute to the face as the quintessential display-screen of human emotion and experience, has few equals since the heyday of the great silent features, such as Dreyer’s 1928 “Jeanne d’Arc.” It is in the interest of the indirect visual display of the nearly inconceivable that accompanies direct depiction whenever it is possible that the cinematography also resorts to extended sequences out of focus. It is with just such a blurred canvas that the film begins. With agonizing slowness, the still-shot of a field “clarifies” to reveal that while two inmates have managed to copulate in a ditch on the left side of the frame, a group of SK is advancing on the right.

Not that this film in any way lacks a story-line. It is one brilliantly highlighting the chief conflict posed by the Holocaust, to its cultural heirs as well as to its historical victims. The crux of the matter is conveyed by a line directed at Saul by one of his closest SK comrades after he manages to lose a packet of gunpowder, destined for in-camp insurrection, in his increasingly tenuous quest to secure a rabbi and sanctify the boy’s remains: “You failed the living for the dead.” The story has placed Saul in the crosshairs between two counter-plots. The more encompassing one has been wrenched into action from the moment we are party to the concentration camp doctor’s treatment of the surviving boy; the second one involves planned resistance on the part of the SK (at the inevitable moment when they, in their roles as Geheimnisträger or “bearers of secrets,” have been slated for extermination). In return for cooperation in the endeavor of locating a rabbi, Saul is granted unusual liberty in roaming the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex by his peers and enlisted to assist them in their revolt: most notably to convey to them a packet of gunpowder from one Ella Fried in the “Canada” of stolen possessions.

In arguably the most apocalyptic scene in a jarringly otherworldly film, Saul seeks out a rabbi at a moment of overload in the death machinery. Amid a backdrop of bonfires, the Nazi troops form shooting-squads to liquidate the naked prisoners in front of burial-pits. Saul has already picked up the gunpowder from Ella. An authentic rabbi that Saul tracks down amid the stampeding crowd, a gaunt, bearded figure, meets his fate by gunshot while a second bearded prisoner, a random one, passes himself off as a rabbi. Saul saves this fortuitous new acquaintance, changing him out of a telltale inmate’s uniform and grooming him as a fellow SK. In the melee Saul manages to return to his SK unit with the imposter, but in a costume-change of his own, has let go of the precious packet of ammunition. This scene takes place at the apogee of the film’s cinematic hand-held violence. It highlights the choice that was evident to any of the “smart money” standing by as the Third Reich consolidated itself and implemented its totalitarian apparatus: between certain death in armed resistance or sublimated spiritual life prolonged by sustaining, against all odds, such transcendental ethical values as non-violence and respect for the dead. A generation before the Final Solution, Walter Benjamin confronted the same impasse in his 1921 “Critique of Violence.” In this text, he carefully constructs a scenario in which armed resistance to the suppression of organized labor, set within a framework of “divine” as opposed to “mythical” violence, is warranted.

Mythic violence is bloody power over mere life for its own sake;  divine violence is pure power over all life for the sake of the living.  The first demands sacrifice; the second accepts it.

This divine power is not only attested by religious tradition but  is also found in present-day life in at least one sanctioned  manifestation. The educative power, which in its perfected form stands outside the law, is one of its manifestations. (Selected Writings,  I, 250)

Nota bene that “the educative power,” care for the cognitive integrity of the upcoming generation, lines up with the “divine violence” that would “accept violence” in the name of the living. Saul’s obsession with the sanctity of a boy, the fact that a silent encounter with a living local boy is the last human touch before annihilation, is no casual matter. Benjamin’s discernment early on, even from his privileged provenance, of a rationale for organized resistance against totalitarian repression, in no way undermined his lifelong friendship with the Kabbalist Gershom Scholem or his captivation with religion in general as a persistent and dominant cultural medium for folk-wisdom and mythical narrative.

The mixed results that Saul achieves in his crossed mission are not lost upon his comrades, who have, in spite of their skepticism, supported him in his fervor.

SAUL: I have to take care of my son. He’s not from my wife.

FELLOW SK: When did you last see him? You have no son!

Saul is still trying, frantically, to bury the corpse at the moment when the SK’s resistance, rendered all the more futile through lack of ammunition, breaks out. The film’s denouement is a chaotic unraveling of all efforts to achieve the moratorium of sustainable life under conditions of systematic annihilation—whether these involve bearing up under impossibly brutal conditions (with a sheer resolve preparatory to the state of Agamben’s Muselmann), armed resistance at all costs, or religious sublimation. Suffice it to say that all the characters’ plans and aspirations along with the story’s plotlines, meet a dead-end worthy of the Final Solution’s socio-political, military, and technological premises. The rare coordination between concerted cinematographic style and narrative subtlety that director Lázló Nemes has achieved in “Son of Saul,” not to mention the inspired performances that he has elicited from Géza Röhrig (as Saul) and fellow cast-members, ensures the film of enduring luster in film-history in addition to its well-deserved current acclaim.

During “Son of Saul’s” blurred visual rhapsodies, the “subjects” of scrutiny revert from the familiar Sonderkommando and their Nazi overseers to what are cinematic ghosts or shadows. The filmmakers signal in this fashion that the ghosts of the Holocaust—however this mega-happening fares on the stock markets of historical re-iteration and contemporary public opinion—are very much alive. Not only alive; they are particularly malevolent and still threaten escalating catastrophe. This whether we bemoan (as in Rwanda) the non-existence of activism and empathy with respect to local genocidal conditions and other instances of militaristic barbarism, and the masses of refugees inevitably streaming away from these incursions; or whether we critique “mining” the World War II Holocaust as an inexhaustible source of moral smugness, a readymade posture of ethical “sense-certainty.”

The fact remains that the historical WW II Holocaust, as an extreme of arbitrariness, brutality, and anomie in the arrangement of human affairs, remains with us as a paradigm, the acid-test held up to current predicaments that might just get out of hand in a massive and irreparable way. These range from crises ensuing from critical resource shortages and climate change to nuclear threat, to the crash of electro-cybernetic infrastructure, to the demographic aftermath of intractable wars, to the despoiling of the environment. Indeed, arbitrary, intractable destructiveness and anomie do emerge, periodically, from socio-political infrastructure; the Holocaust, persists as their measure, intact and in-dwelling. It is the very Imaginary lurking at the extremes of more recent challenges that humans, on a planetary scale, have posed to civility, coexistence, collaboration, justice, and due process.


Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacher. Stanford UP. Stanford, CA, 1998.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, I (1913-1926). Harvard UP.      Cambridge, MA., 1996.


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