When do we reach the limits of representability, freedom and language? Christine Jakobson turns to László Nemes’ debut film Son of Saul, which won him the Grand Prix at Cannes and best foreign language film at the Oscars, challenging questions concerning identity, while confronting the liminality between possibility and impossibility, individuality and universality.
Against Jean-Luc Godard’s proclamation that cinema has failed to keep its promise to represent and bear witness to the trauma of the Holocaust, cinema has now witnessed the uncompromising debut Son of Saul (2015), which centres on a fictional character of the Sonderkommando. 38-year-old director László Nemes, who co-wrote Son of Saul with Clara Royer, depicts an encounter beyond that which language is able to express, while questioning the limits of freedom and the burden of identity.
Having left the realm of hope and fear, Saul ventures on a seemingly impossible mission, trying to find meaning where none seems to reside beyond mere survival, after seeing a boy miraculously survive the gas chamber’s industry of death. As Saul has been stripped of everything and is left with nothing to live for, he is able to risk all for the only thing that comes to matter to him, namely a proper burial – or what it stands for – of a boy, who Saul claims to be his son.
Echoing Sartre’s famous assertion that ‘We are condemned to be free’, the film poses the question of what remains of a person, if thrown into a world without meaning. Will all freedom cease or is it possible to find it even within the most confined and predetermined of all situations? Saul’s ceaseless internal revolt rises against the external in a quest for resistance and freedom, remaining free at the hands of his own executioner, supporting Sartre’s belief in an all-consuming ontological freedom, which precedes political, economic and social liberty.
Géza Röhrig, who wrote his first poetry about Auschwitz at the age of 19, brings to his role of Saul a single minded intensity. He steps into focus from the darkness and chaos of the frame’s edges, only to never leave the screen again. The viewer is left to follow Saul into an abysmal void, which penetrates the heart of darkness and assaults one’s senses in a universe without mercy.
Son of Saul takes place around the day of the Sonderkommando’s armed rebellion against the SS in 1944. Members of the Sonderkommando were forced to assist the Nazis with the murder and disposal of their fellow human beings, only to delay their own execution by a mere few months. Primo Levi has defined this atrocity as the most demonic of all crimes, while Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ never seemed more applicable. It is a setup, in which the burden of guilt is shifted onto the victims by making them complicit, showing how the innocent are turned into victims and victims into perpetrators.
Amidst the chaos of the concentration camp we are continuously following Saul. But who is he and what do we know about him? Saul embodies the marginalised and upon being asked his name, he simply replies ‘Ausländer’. However, Ausländer is the German word for ‘foreigner’, a word accompanied with negative and derogatory connotations. Hence, Saul’s response highlights that he does not identify himself to be an individual with a past or a future, but has come to embody ‘the other’, perhaps has even become ‘the other’ to himself, the one who serves a mere function - who will be exploited, humiliated, threatened and finally killed.
The striking scene, in which Saul visits a woman, who is possibly his wife, so as to acquire the emulation needed for the armed rebellion, shows her attempt to touch Saul’s hand during a moment of chaos, despite their prohibition of physical contact. Yet, Saul forcefully withdraws his hand, not in an act of obedience, but as a gesture manifesting that he has ceased to be who he was - that he no longer is her husband, but has come to embody the function forced onto him.
Another scene, which meticulously depicts the complicated nature of identity politics, appears towards the end of the film, when the rabbi, Saul thought to have finally found, is meant to speak Kaddish to grant the boy a proper Jewish burial. However, when the man, who identified himself to be a rabbi, is unable to speak the words, Saul turns to him with a look of all-encompassing rage. Though once the now stranger starts helping Saul to dig the boy’s grave, Saul joins him in an act of compassion, accepting the man for who he is, while empathising with his pretense to be someone he isn’t.
And who is this boy that Saul claims to be his son and for whom he is willing to risk his own life? Yet, does it actually matter of whether or not he is his son? Admittedly, Saul makes it his sole responsibility, thereby betraying his fellow comrades in their mission to fight the Nazi’s and hoping to rectify their complicity to murder their own kind, so as to ensure that the boy won’t be burned with the other nameless corpses. On some basic level this question is irrelevant. However, it shows how Son of Saul manages to tell two stories simultaneously: one, in which the love of a father transcends all obstacles and one, in which an anonymous boy, who miraculously survives the gas chamber, inspires a stranger to follow in his footsteps, so as to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
And who is the boy, who arouses a smile in an otherwise expressionless Saul during the final scenes of the film? And why does Saul smile? Is it out of love, hope or relief? Irrespective of the reason, Saul’s smile has an unusual universal quality. Despite the singularity of his character, Saul nonetheless comes to stand in for something other than himself, for something altogether grander, transcending individuality in the face of unrepresentability.
Matyas Erdely’s exceptional cinematography calls upon the viewer's imagination and intelligence, leaving so much of that, which could so easily be depicted as a spectacle out-of-focus. While his use of 35mm film gives the images an extraordinary tactility, the Academy Aspect ratio and often extreme shallow focus composition pushes the background further away. Hence, it is difficult to see clearly the tragedy above and beyond Saul’s enigmatic features, inducing the film with an absence of predictability, which mirrors Saul’s experience in that of the viewer. Erdely’s use of Saul’s continuous close-up perspective gives the film an singular intensity, denying the viewer to witness what Saul witnesses, as we are confined to a two hour long portrait of a man, whose past is unknown and whose present is incomprehensible.
It would be a mistake to believe that the camera identifies with Saul, the implication of which would be that the audience is experiencing what Saul is experiencing. Whereas in fact, we witness Saul witnessing, while we are denied to witness what he witnesses. Son of Saul does not attempt to portray a whole, but offers fragmentations, suggesting the impossibility to represent the Holocaust in its entirety.
The soundscape designed by Tamas Zanyi completes the image, further deepens its tactility, while opening the frame to that, which lies outside of it. Zanyi’s intense, yet subtle, sound design composes a symphony of unbearable screams, cries, gunshots and incomprehensible noises, while mixing some eight languages. The use of language in Son of Saul serves on the one hand as a form of inclusion and exclusion for the victims and members of the Sonderkommando, while on the other hand hinting at Wittgenstein’s axiom ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent’. While the film suggests that no language could capture the cruelty, Nemes’ rendition thereof pushes the grammar of representability and of cinema itself.
Son of Saul is without a doubt an existential masterpiece, from which we will still have to learn so much. While it contributes to our understanding of the Holocaust as an extermination factory, it also posits the inhumanity it portrays as part of our larger historical past and of modernity’s legacy, which continues in our present shared identity. In response to Godard’s complaint: it might have been necessary to await a generation temporally and historically disconnected from the Holocaust, so as to be able to reject an impossible objective view on it, in order to allow an individuality becoming a universal embodiment of all things possible and necessary.
Depicting the limits of representability, of freedom, of language and of the loss of our shared humanity, this extraordinary, yet simple, film nonetheless ends in a glimpse of hope. Whether a mere illusion or an actuality, Son of Saul might be unbearable to watch, but impossible to forget.