All art since the Shoah has been ethically contested, and art taking the Holocaust as its object occupies uniquely unstable ground. Films daring to depict it have attracted condemnation at least since Jacques Rivette’s 1961 essay ‘On Abjection’ – a piece with which the filmmaker and sometime Cahiers du Cinéma editor inaugurated a tradition of remarkable tenacity and reach. It was in a sense his mantle Claude Lanzmann took up in 1994 when he denounced Schindler’s List in an open letter to Le Monde. Lanzmann’s Shoah has justly become the measure by which Holocaust films are judged, but the painstaking conscientiousness which governs his film is absent from this critical tradition. His claim that Schindler’s List is “a kitschy melodrama” is unworthy. So is his glib anointment of Son of Saul as the ‘the anti-Schindler’s List’.
The Shoah tests all our responses: emotional, aesthetic, creative, moral. It insists we refuse right conclusions for wrong reasons. Arguments like Lanzmann’s – delivered from a pose of moral superiority – are too often compromised by superficiality and carelessness, the very flaws they purport to uncover. Son of Saul is an extraordinarily ambitious film; its challenge to the canon will take years to fully comprehend. Too many of its critics have yielded to generalizing remarks precisely where they should tread most lightly. A. O. Scott wrote in the New York Times that it “offers less insight than sensation, an emotional experience that sits too comfortably within the norms of entertainment”; Antoine de Baecque, a film critic and lecturer, was quoted in the same paper declaring it adopts “the only possible representation of a tragedy morally unfilmable.” These lines are undergirded by a desire to perform piety, and their excess of surety approaches the disingenuous.
As T. S. Eliot writes, there is always in criticism a “tendency to legislate rather than inquire.” Any moral discussion of a Holocaust film must be secure in its technical foundation before it can move to normative ethics, and such a foundation is especially imperative in a film intended to forge a new cinematic idiom. Son of Saul’s 4:3 aspect ratio frames a frequently claustrophobic space, and the 40 mm lens used throughout, mostly at eye-level, approximates a human perspective. Most importantly, the very shallow plane of focus, achieved with wide apertures, partitions each frame – gives it an in-focus and an out-of-focus component. Compounded by a disdain for establishing shots and planar compositions, this use of depth of field constitutes a visual fingerprint as distinctive as any auteur’s. The duality it generates is signal: Son of Saul might be said to consist of two stories running concurrently. At its core is Saul’s desperate attempt to secure a boy he claims is his son Jewish burial rites. In its margins the meticulously-reconstructed machinery of Auschwitz.
Saul, the camera’s subject to the exclusion of his surroundings, is centre-screen for much of the film. We accompany him in long, masterful, handheld shots. We learn he’s part of a Sonderkommando, a ‘special unit’ of Jewish prisoners forced to facilitate the Holocaust, and we are confronted from the first with the unspeakable details of his task. We look on at his helplessness when a boy survives the gas chamber and is summarily strangled by a doctor. We witness him resolve to steal the boy’s body and hide it in his quarters, risking the lives of the entire commando, and we track him in his search for a rabbi to pronounce final burial rites. His every movement bespeaks dehumanisation: he’s hauntingly expressionless, robotic, less than a cogwheel. In one of the film’s indelible lines he says: “we are already dead.” Burying the boy, we assume, represents a recovery of agency, religion, probity – that part of humanity which is eradicated by the camps. Crucially, however, the closeness and consistency with which we ghost Saul is matched by our ignorance of his interiority. The spare dialogue, concentrated in functional exchanges, reveals almost nothing; we have no privileged access to his thoughts. A paradox of intimacy and remoteness communicates particularity of experience but forbids easy identification or the illusion of total understanding.
Auschwitz is glimpsed in the background and at the edges, often out of focus, rarely visually or verbally flagged. Its recreation is strikingly indirect and strikingly precise. There’s an exactitude of language: guards call bodies Stücke, ‘pieces’, and the prisoners speak in their confusingly multiple tongues. Lies about waiting meals told Jews before the gas chamber are lifted from an interview in Shoah; ‘Kanada’, the warehouse we pass fleetingly, was where prisoners sorted belongings of the dead. In passing the film restages both the abortive Sonderkommando revolt in Auschwitz and the capture of one of the only photos we have from the camp. Yet the vast majority of such details are inaccessible to the viewer. Late in the film, when Saul join a press of families stumbling to their deaths in burning pits, some may deduce that it is late 1944, that the Allies are approaching, that the pace of the genocide has accelerated, that Hungarian transports have overwhelmed the chambers. What we experience is terror and confusion.
Son of Saul exacts rigorous attentiveness from its audience and, like all films, it must be rewatched; but in these respects, and in compressing context into the margins generally, it demonstrates a disdain for accessibility not motivated merely by concern for plausibility or historical truth. Nor is the purpose of its obliquity sanitisation: we are shown every step in the operation of gas chambers; in some of the film’s most devastating scenes, we see Saul shovel coal into incinerators and ash into a river. Given the film’s fixation on its protagonist this exhaustive if indirect documentation of the materiality of genocide must be deliberate. But like every other element in Son of Saul this insistence is subordinate to a central organising principle: Saul’s ambiguous, irreducible subjectivity. We are witnesses through an extraordinarily restricted lens, and a deliberate disregard for clarity frames us as bystanders rather than beneficiaries of narrative craft. In this regard Son of Saul is indeed opposite to Schindler’s List: if poignancy and tragedy are audience-facing effects, it turns relentlessly inwards, means not to touch but harrow. “There’s no time left to weep,” wrote Tim Robey in The Telegraph, “because the nerve endings are already dead.”
Lanzmann’s key objection to Schindler’s List turns precisely on viewer response. “One cries when seeing Schindler’s List? So be it. But tears are a form of pleasure,” he wrote in his 1993 polemic, “a catharsis […] in a sense Spielberg’s film is a melodrama, a kitschy melodrama.” This is unjust, and symptomatic in the way it flattens a complex work concerned with much more than emotional appeals. After Schindler narrowly prevents the deportation of his Jewish accountant there is a short interstice without dialogue, the kind Spielberg has great facility for, in which belongings of the deported are sorted. It’s a scene about absence: we are shown mountains of suitcases, heaps of glasses, leather boots. There is patience, intelligence. John Williams’s strings are quiet and restrained. The camera drifts over photographs laid out on the table: think of the erasure of significance. It tracks by a line of craftsmen appraising valuables: the intolerable mundanity of it, the efficiency. And then a handkerchief containing teeth – gold-crowned, we assume, though the picture is black and white – is emptied before a seated man. We pause as he removes his glasses, looks after the person who delivered it and, brow furrowed slightly, still, looks down at the out-of-shot teeth until we cut. The whole optical metaphor of Oppenheimer’s Look of Silence is contained in those removed glasses. An unwillingness to see vies with the inability to look away; and there’s the implication of a suspension of work, a hiatus, as if in silent respect. It’s the kind of nuance which makes sweeping judgments otiose.
Compare the warehouse scene in Son of Saul, in which a chain of bribes brings Saul face to face with a girl whose relation to him is never explained. We snatch glimpses of his environs: women at work, stacking, carrying, sorting. We will not see the one who looks fleetingly at Saul again. We hear the clangour of pots and pans; we may notice wicker baskets, enamelware, tin canisters; if we look very carefully at the background we might discern a pile of briefcases, heavily blurred. (Son of Saul trains us to look at the indistinct from its first shot: out of focus for over thirty seconds, until Saul walks into the foreground, it conceals prisoners burying the testimonies upon which the film is based.) Saul and the girl, Ella, look silently into each other’s eyes, and the matron standing over them says: “No touching.” When she’s distracted by a crash – presumably orchestrated – Ella passes Saul a packet. He hides it. She moves to hold his hand tenderly in hers’ and he pulls it away, turns, begins to leave. “Saul,” she says, and he looks at her one final time. And then he’s gone.
With Spielberg it is almost a dialogue: look at this, he says with his camera, and we say: I know why. Son of Saul director Lászlo Nemes affects not to care whether we know. In Spielberg there is singularity; in Nemes simultaneity and multiplicity. Spielberg shows; Nemes allows us to look on. Son of Saul possesses that form of greatness which relates to lesser works in its class not by dismissing what is good in them but by taking it for granted and reaching for more. But much is sacrificed to its frenetic mimesis – the sensitivity of Spielberg’s scene, the space it affords for reflection, the sense of communion with a cogitating filmmaker – and these are valuable too. Yes, he aims for poignance in this scene, and Nemes – in the refused hand, the turned cheek – rejects poignance. But no film can represent overwhelming horror at every turn. There’s something ugly in Lanzmann’s assertion that it’s impossible to tell the truth about the Holocaust with a story about saved Jews. To take it at face value would reduce the scope of fiction enormously. Narrative art isn’t inherently symbolic or representative. It can’t be reduced to an argument. Yet Richard Porton wrote much the same recently: Schindler’s List’s “argument concluded that you need a Christ-like gentile to save the Jews”. Such claims are made only at great distance from the texts they purport to describe.
Son of Saul is indeed the better film – but its superiority is artistic, not moral. Remarkable are its few concessions to convention, the way it shuns overt manipulation. Probably criticism’s natural bias towards ideas underrates the difficulty of being coherent and consistently interesting in film. Spielberg owes much of his success to his sense for really using extras and tertiary characters – in Schindler’s List they’re essential to communicating diversity of experience – and for constructing the forceful, purely visual scenes that are cinema’s exclusive domain. He also tends towards the simplistic. Minutes before the excoriating ghetto liquidation sequence we overhear one of the anonymous ghetto characters say: “There’s nowhere down from here. This is it, this is the bottom,” and another reply: “The ghetto is … liberty.”
Innovation is always relative to a precedent; director László Nemes’s film is most striking where it differs from previous Holocaust films, and the great deal it shares with them is liable to be overlooked. But Porton’s suggestion that Son of Saul “merely recycles old Holocaust tropes in shiny new packaging” is untenable, if less in substance than in tone. The attraction of novelty plays little part in the film’s effect on the viewer. And the imputation that there are ‘old’ Holocaust ‘tropes’ is badly judged given their historical roots. The cardinal response to a Holocaust film – that this happened, that it may have happened almost like this – is extraordinarily important. It doesn’t age.
Still, ‘shiny new packaging’ betrays a common attitude to art about the Holocaust. Schindler’s List is beautifully photographed, and it harks back to black and white classics in its combination of rim lighting with black-backed close-ups. Yet Spielberg reportedly refused to shoot in colour so he couldn’t accidentally “beautify events”. When Nemes speaks of a “dogma: the film cannot look beautiful, the film cannot look appealing”, his allusion to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s abnegation reminds us precisely what ugliness – early digital, shaky, over-exposed – might look like, as his declaration that “any exercise in style or virtuosity needed to be avoided” reminds us of Son of Saul’s intricately choreographed shots. If the impulse which moved him to such pronouncements was anticipatory, it did not forestall hostility. “In the end,” one critic writes in Film Comment, “Son of Saul is an exploitation film not despite but because of its technical skill and resolute cunning.”
What underwrites such comments is the intuition that solemnity before the Shoah is uniquely fragile – at risk of contamination by everything it borders. It manifests in anxieties about cinematic beauty, in Spielberg’s refusal to take a salary for directing Schindler’s List, in Lanzmann’s denunciation of the catharsis he believes it produces. It’s why Rivette declared any attempt to recreate the Holocaust on film “derisory and grotesque”.
The inconsistency with which such logic is applied is a clue to its vagueness. Ultimately it’s either incoherent or reduces to a blanket proscription on mention of the Holocaust – and Geza Röhrig, who plays Saul, is right to call it the moral duty of cinema and literature to address calamity. In conceding this we must concede filmmakers their right to representation, and as critics commit to meeting them in good faith. Part of what that entails is being more thorough in our inquiries, more hesitant in our judgments, more reluctant to move into the ethical domain.