Images to Work With: On the Ethics of Representation in “Son of Saul”

On the Ethics of Representation in "Son of Saul."

By Francey RussellFebruary 28, 2016

IN THE MIDDLE of Lázló Nemes’s Son of Saul, a scene takes place in the center of the chaos surrounding a massive incineration pit as human beings are driven by other human beings to their death. The soundscape is filled with crackling fire, gunshots, and a terrible range of human noises. As with the rest of the film, the camera is intent on Saul (Géza Röhrig), frantic in its pace and rapt in its focus. All around him and filling out the screen are flames, shadows, and bodies: alive and dead, naked and uniformed, all wild with panic. Watching this feels like being delivered over to something inconceivable, something that bends one’s very hold on the world. It also upends one’s hold on the nature of film itself, calling into question what film can or should do. In his memoir, writing against the idea that the Holocaust is inconceivable and rejecting the balm that such an idea provides, survivor Hermann Langbein asserts, “Nothing was inconceivable in Auschwitz. Everything was possible, literally everything.” So what can film do when everything is possible? Is it within film’s purview to represent all of what was conceived and realized in that time and place? If yes, at what point does such representation become obscene? If no, at what point does the refusal to represent become a strategy of moral evasion?


In 1959, film critic Luc Moullet wrote in Cahiers du cinéma that “morality is a question of tracking shots.” That same year, speaking of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, Jean-Luc Godard repeated this claim: “A tracking shot is a moral issue.” Against the intuitive thought that morality is a question of a film’s content, Moullet and Godard insist that morality is lodged in cinematic form. A film’s moral orientation is to be gleaned not from consideration of the story that it tells but through consideration of how it tells it: the angle of the camera, the tenor of the score, the place of a cut, the ratio of a screen. Three decades later, inspired by Jacques Rivette’s essay “On Abjection,” Serge Daney wrote an essay called “The Tracking Shot of Kapò,” excoriating the Holocaust film Kapò for employing “a simple camera movement [that] was the one movement not to make. The movement you must — obviously — be abject to make.” It might seem that abjection would be an effect of the scene’s terrible content, a woman committing suicide by throwing herself onto electric barbed wire. How could a film about the Holocaust be abject in its use of camera movement? Daney’s claim is that a film is itself abject when it engages cinematic strategies to entertain, to give false catharsis to, or otherwise “aesthetically seduce” its audience. For these critics, it is morally perverse to revert to techniques of aesthetic seduction when a film’s subject is of the gravest human concern.

This debate about the morality of film form has come to govern the conversation about representations of the Holocaust. The two films that now function as representatives in this debate are Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Shoah is a nine-hour documentary whose governing formal choice is negative: it does not show any archival images or footage. Lanzmann is perhaps the chief advocate for the prohibition on representation based on his conviction that the Holocaust cannot be conveyed visually. Schindler’s List is a three-hour fictionalized drama based on a real person. For the most part, it engages the formal and emotional techniques of classical Hollywood cinema. Lanzmann lambasted Schindler’s List, calling it a “kitschy melodrama” that indecently transgressed the ban on depiction. He went as far as saying that if Spielberg had simply reflected, he would not have made Schindler’s List; he would have just made Shoah. There is now a governing and simplifying tendency in critical and academic discourse that pits these two films against each other, where Shoah is celebrated while Schindler’s List is criticized for manipulating its subject and aesthetically and abjectly seducing its audience.

From their interviews, it is clear that Nemes and Röhrig understand the ambition of their film through the terms and stakes of this debate about representability and the moral implications of technique. They move fluidly between citing survivors’ narratives and referencing film directors, between emphasizing our still-outstanding need to grapple with this history and our need to find a form adequate to this task. The lens through which the film must be viewed and understood is likewise double. Son of Saul is tethered to (at least) two external and mutually implicating sources of reference: the first is the Holocaust as event; the second is the Holocaust as genre.


Son of Saul premiered at Cannes 2015, where it won the Grand Prix, and it is nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year. The film’s gravitational center is Saul Ausländer, a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau in fall 1944. The Sonderkommando was a concentration camp work unit comprised of Jewish prisoners whose chief duties included guiding new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the gassed corpses, sanitizing the space, and burning bodies in crematoria and open-air pits. There were 14 such units, beginning in 1942, with each new unit disposing the remains of its predecessor. In Images in Spite of All, philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman emphasizes that an essential component of the horror endured by members of the Sonderkommando was that their entire existence, everything they saw and did, was to be kept secret. The SS informed them that no one would be allowed to survive, and even if they did, no one would believe them. The Sonderkommando were viewed by other prisoners and survivors as collaborators. Even those who could believe their factual testimony would not credit their morality.

Son of Saul takes place over a day and a half. During this time, Saul witnesses the gassing of a boy he claims is his son, and he commits unequivocally to giving him a proper burial and finding a Rabbi to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. (Writing in her journals about the meaning of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt noted simply that no one would say Kaddish for the victims.) Through circumstance rather than conviction, Saul also assists another prisoner’s efforts to take photographs of the camp, and he facilitates the transfer of smuggled gunpowder to members of the camp’s resistance movement who are organizing a coordinated armed revolt (a Sonderkommando revolt actually took place in October 1944). In his search for a Rabbi, Saul travels through the functional parts of the camp system: from the open-air train station, to the Sonderkommando sleeping quarters, to the gas chambers, to the crematorium, where sweating, ever-active living bodies hurry to feed dead bodies to the fire, the belly and engine of the monstrous mechanism. The pace is relentless. Its forward propulsion is arrested only in the face of SS officers, whose simple presence can grind the prisoners’ movements to a hyper-vigilant halt and drive their eyes downward to the earth.

Aside from three shots of birch trees at the beginning, middle, and end of the film, we are otherwise riveted to Saul. The camera stays with his face, which seems carved of rough stone and juts slightly forward, as if intent on meeting the world just to keep it out. The effect of this connection to Saul is that we are never given a moment’s rest or any space to breathe; we never enjoy the privilege of height or distance, which could grant a view of the whole and thereby a sense of separateness. Grafting us to this single individual means that in the majority of the scenes, the horrors of this world are not objects for our gaze. We never get to look directly at the vast piles of bodies; instead they remain on the periphery, unfocused yet ever insistent. In refusing to let us look, Nemes suggests that Saul himself is not looking, no longer really registering. In one shot near the beginning of the film, as we hear (but do not see) the total panic of those inside the gas chamber, the camera rests on Saul’s face at a 45 degree angle, and he briefly but intentionally clenches his jaw, the smallest twitch of spontaneous responsiveness.


In her review of the Cannes Film Festival, Manohla Dargis criticized the film for precisely this lack of look, arguing that Nemes transforms all other victims into “anonymous background blurs,” effectively reducing them to props. But we can also see this formal choice as Nemes’s effort to make vivid one of the more horrible and degrading elements of this experience: Sonderkommando survivor Filip Müller describes such mass death as reducing individual victims to an “indescribable human heap.” He wrote, “They had no human figure,” describing not just what the gas chamber did to their bodies, but what working in that world did to his vision. This is not to say decisively that Nemes’s choice is commendable rather than obscene. It is just to observe that an alternative reading is not just possible but historically and morally grounded.

A. O. Scott also expressed reservations about the film’s techniques, observing that Nemes’s “skill is undeniable, but also troubling. The movie offers less insight than sensation, an emotional experience that sits too comfortably within the norms of entertainment.” Scott reads Son of Saul as an “almost unbearably exciting” thriller, due to its frenetic pace and the pressing time sensitivity that animates the events. Yet here, too, there seems more interpretive latitude for the film’s pacing and cinematography than Scott allows. While a merciless tension structures the entire film, I experienced this not as “exciting” or thrilling, but as suffocating and exhausting. The urgent speed of conventional entertainment thrillers operates in precisely paced intervals, their temporal form following a dynamic and reassuring rhythm of pressure and release. But there is no such rhythm or respite in the timescape of Son of Saul. The film’s articulation of space is similar. As has been oft noted by critics, Son of Saul was shot using a lens with an unusually shallow depth of field in 4:3 aspect ratio, fostering the sense that this is a space both claustrophobic and impossibly vast. By reducing what we see to the width of a narrow halo extending just inches from Saul’s body, and by providing no orienting high or wide shots, the film suggests that there is literally no way or opportunity to comprehend this world, in either sight or understanding. Nemes never indicates that there is any step beyond, and in this way, he indicates that this world has no end, either in space or in time. But this is not a thrill. This is a nightmare.


As Saul seeks the means to bury and pray for the boy, all around him men and women are organizing a revolt. A man named Abraham who seems to know Saul well is a key figure in this organization, and he tries to bring Saul into their collective endeavor. Abraham thinks that Saul is out of his mind to risk everything for a dead boy; Saul thinks that Abraham and the others are deluded to think that there is something still to be saved in this place. Each has a vision of what act counts as resistance, and while in interviews Röhrig has described Saul’s choice as morally “higher” than the revolt, the film itself does not endorse this evaluative hierarchy of human action. Unlike Peter Labuza, who sees the film as presenting clear moral alternatives, I think it is a mistake to sort the events of the film into spiritual versus “merely” material actions, since Saul’s hands plunging into the dirt evidences the brute materiality of burial, and Abraham’s fidelity to the task of collective revolt is animated by a resolve that is thoroughly spiritual. Throughout the film there are still other gestures of resistance. Some of the men talk about women; some make music and tell stories; one man buries written testimony in the dirt; another takes pictures, at great risk to himself and all others.

In his book, Didi-Huberman describes how the Sonderkommando were preoccupied with finding a way to make their experiences known to the world. Certain of their own death and against the threat of being disbelieved, they put words onto paper and into the earth. They also took pictures: “Between the imminent obliteration of the witness [and] the certain unrepresentability of the testimony — […] the photographic image suddenly appeared.” Following Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, Didi-Huberman emphasizes the photograph’s transparency with the real; the thing has to be there to be captured on film. Didi-Huberman sees this fidelity to reality as itself a form of revolt (and because of this, contra Lanzmann, he advocates the moral importance of showing and looking). The pictures address reality directly and, in doing so, refute it. And these pictures, like the notes in the earth, are also addressed in another direction: they are meant for someone outside; as Didi-Huberman says, they are meant for us.

In the scene with the photographer, Saul makes a quick decision that saves the photographer and also the photographs. Saul is not at this point concerned with documentation, because he is not concerned to address anyone outside the camp, or with anyone besides the boy. But whether revolt, photography, prayer, or testimony, each act affirms a commitment to an outside or an elsewhere — a commitment to the very possibility that Nemes’s formal choices consistently obliterate. This is a closed universe, one so furious that it seems to wrestle with the limits of the screen. But while Nemes grants no outside or escape, the film’s heart is constituted by these living gestures of negation and resistance enacted within this world.


Both Didi-Huberman and Lanzmann — the champion of the image and the champion of unrepresentability — have praised Son of Saul. It is more surprising in the case of Lanzmann, who in the past has claimed that fiction as such constitutes a transgression. The film has also met stringent critique, almost all of which takes the form of praising Nemes’s technical capabilities while arguing that precisely such techniques constitute moral failure. I doubt that this is a film that will yield to any final or decisive evaluation, precisely because its form shares an edge with the abject and the obscene, the other side of which is an unyielding demand for rigorous imaginative, emotional, and moral engagement.

Didi-Huberman controversially begins Images in Spite of All with the claim that “to know, we must imagine for ourselves.” Some saw this as an invitation to subjective fantasying, which, they argued, was the absolutely inappropriate stance to take with respect to the human horror of the Holocaust. But Didi-Huberman’s command is not that we delve into sentimental speculation but that we work on ourselves as we work to acknowledge the force of the images. “An image without imagination is quite simply an image that one didn’t spend the time to work on.” The sense and significance of images is not simply given or self-evident, even in the case of photographs. Any meaning they harbor depends on the viewer’s willingness to see and bear it. Son of Saul remains an undecidable film, and there is no guarantee that it has avoided the moral risks inherent in its project. Its true achievement is its capturing and projecting images that call for real imaginative and ethical work.


Francey Russell is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. She works on issues in moral philosophy and subjectivity, and how these get worked out in art.

LARB Contributor

Francey Russell is an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College and Columbia University. She works primarily on topics in moral psychology, history of philosophy, and aesthetics.


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