EVERY YEAR, one expects that the best films of the year will adhere to certain tired genre conventions: biopics of great artists, period romances, and of course, a Holocaust film or two. Ever since the success of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993, Holocaust films have emerged as their own genre, often with awards shows in mind. Cue Kate Winslet on HBO’s Extras: “If you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” (She later won an Oscar for her Holocaust drama The Reader.) More frustrating, however, is that these films are largely risible affairs, tasteful dramas without much thematic or aesthetic ambition.
The continuing respectability of Holocaust films has often resulted in disrespectful art. So credit goes to Son of Saul, a real-time thriller set in Auschwitz, for locating its brutality up-front and center, as well as shying away from simplistic storytelling. Shot with intense close-ups and a booming soundtrack, Son of Saul sets its terse narrative right inside the gas chambers. Its novelty has already earned it many accolades: the Grand Prix at Cannes, a number of Critics Awards, a Golden Globe, and surely Oscar gold in the Foreign Language Film category. But despite its setting, Son of Saul still shies away from depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, and, in doing so, creates a specious relationship between history and its representation. More damningly, the immediacy of its plot allows it to avoid historical consideration of the role of the Sonderkommando: Jews who were forced to work in the death camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibór, and Belzec. In essence, the film uses its visual ambiguity to make an argument for moral ambiguity, creating an intense experience but with a rather crude set of ethical quandaries.
Directed by Hungarian László Nemes — a former assistant to Béla Tarr (Sátántangó; The Turin Horse) — the film follows Saul, a Sonderkommando member working through his daily routine of moving Jews into the gas chambers and exposing their remains to the Nazis. However, Saul steals the body of a young boy from the gas chambers, a boy who may or may not be his son, and searches for a rabbi to give the body a proper funeral. Nemes keeps the camera focused on Saul and his direct experience throughout. Using elaborately staged long takes, the handheld camera bumps up and down with him in the center of an Academy-ratio 4:3 frame, limiting the character’s point of view. In the first shot, Saul enters the frame as he helps a group of Jews onto a train, and then leads them straight into the gas chambers. A Nazi soldier grabs Saul and forces him to hold back the door as the screams from behind it slowly fade away.
These strategies suggest realism, but Son of Saul frames its character entirely in shallow focus, meaning we are privy to very little in terms of what is happening beyond Saul’s perspective. Nemes thus relies on suggestion: a blurry pile of limbs, coal being thrown into burning fires, patches of blood, and piles of ash. In interviews, he justifies his avoidance of direct images as part of the character’s psychology: “He worked there for four months and so he lost his ability to see the horror, no longer noticing the atrocities because he got used to it.” One wonders, however, if the director is not making the same mistakes made by more tastefully stylized Holocaust dramas. Son of Saul avoids the melodramatic touch of something like Schindler’s List, but by staying so close to its protagonist, the film’s depiction of the Holocaust’s political atrocities feels rather muted. Because Nemes rushes his character through the camp without time for him to even draw a breath, there is little to no context for the images we do see. The reasoning or psychology behind the atrocities is left unspoken. The only way for Nemes to engage us is to make us grasp at the role of the Sonderkommando 70 years ago.
After the publication of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and her elaboration of the “banality of evil” that underwrote the actions of the Nazi, historical scholarship on the Holocaust developed a new perspective on morality. The Holocaust was no longer an unassailable event created by the heads of the Third Reich, but a systemic project in which each individual — the camp’s architects, administrators, witnesses, and in the case of the Sonderkommando, collaborators — was complicit in normalizing genocide. As Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explained in Modernity in the Holocaust, “The truth is that every ‘ingredient’ of the Holocaust — all those many things that rendered it possible — was normal.” To many historians, the efficiency of the Holocaust depended on the rationalized use of laws, technologies, and social customs that never felt extraordinary to either the Nazis or their victims.
The normalizing project of the Holocaust continued in the camps, which were first described in chilling detail by Primo Levi. In his first-hand account The Drowned and the Saved, Levi explains how Jewish victims often divorced themselves from their emotions by focusing on the minutiae of the tasks they were assigned to complete as “tailors, cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers.” “Such people, resuming their customary activity, recovered at the same time, to some extent, their human dignity,” Levi noted, as “the ambition of a ‘job well done’ is so deeply rooted as to compel one ‘to do well’ even enemy jobs.” The obsession with tasks could take precedent over the horrors of the situations. Work became the way to create a human self. While the lives of Sonderkommando were largely different from prisoners like Levi, numerous testimonies speak to their role in an obsession with the details of their labor as well.
Claude Lanzmann’s monumental documentary Shoah offers a prime example of this psychology with the testimony of Abraham Bomba. A Polish Jew who speaks to Lanzmann in English, Bomba discusses his role in cutting the hair of victims before they were sent to the chambers in Treblinka. He delivers his testimony in a robotic voice while cutting the hair of an Israeli man, offering cold hard facts until pressed to describe his feelings. Bomba at first resists, until he stops his work and shifts his voice. “It was very hard to feel anything, because working there day and night between dead people, between bodies, your feeling disappeared, you were dead. You had no feeling at all.”
Sonderkommando may have only had an illusory choice when it came to the physical work (refusal to participate meant death), but to see their choice of work as entirely passive blinds us viewing the role they had to play as a necessary one. The point is not to grant these men agency so that one may condemn them, but to understand their collaborative actions as necessary to the sickening success of the concentration camps. These men had to invest themselves in their work, which meant they could be distanced from it, but not passive. This was the choice they made. Seeing the Sonderkommando’s actions as completely bereft of this psychological choice reverts us to an understanding of the Holocaust that makes it only the product of evildoers at the top.
One imagines that Bomba’s monologue may have provided a starting point for Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer. Saul and the other Sonderkommando remain largely emotionless, simply completing their tasks and avoiding any questions about their actions. But Son of Saul makes a crucial mistake in its representation of these actions. Saul takes neither interest in larger questions of survival nor seems compelled by the labor. He instead participates in the film as if part of a video game–like infrastructure: go to X location, retrieve Y object, meet with person Z, your rabbi is in another grouping. Nemes latches onto just one idea that the literature on the Holocaust has produced: the extreme automation and robotic elements that Sonderkommando faced.
But one wonders if in doing so, he misses the chance to understand the role of the men as active participants in their own repression. He creates Saul’s psychology in a rather binary way: either he would be completely interested in everything around him or completely disassociated from the world. The distortion of the environment, its increasingly shallow focus, becomes an extension of this binary. Yet if Saul were numb to the events surrounding him, the camera should pass by these without any register of their significance. Saul not being shocked by seeing such atrocities in clarity could mean much more in terms of how we contemplate his character.
Son of Saul thus visually simplifies the moral judgments that other Holocaust texts have sought to complicate. Levi claimed the Sonderkommando lived in a “Gray Zone,” somewhere between both victim and perpetrator. Here, Nemes casts them as pawns. While individual characters are given differing degrees of complicity, the role of the Nazis here is ultimately as a force of indescribable evil. Saul simply follows orders at every moment, and remains absent of any interiority during these sequences. Just as the shallow focus of the camera erases anything beyond our immediate understanding of Saul, Nemes’s narrative erases agency by never once having Saul articulate his own work.
Instead, Saul becomes The Last Good Man because of his symbolically overloaded quest to find the rabbi to pray over the young boy. The director contrasts these actions with a group of resistant Jews planning an escape for just themselves. Saul’s selfless actions emerge as the only morally “good” acts in the film, turning the supposedly ambiguous film into a black-and-white choice. Nemes suggests that the only action that could make the Sonderkommando human would be regimented in a morality that simply had no place at Auschwitz. The psychology of the Sonderkommando thus ends up playing no role in exploring morality. Nemes puts us in physical proximity but never into the headspace.
In an interview, Nemes notes that “the aim was to try taking this out of the history books and bringing it into the present in a sense while concentrating on one man, one human being, and not being distracted by all kinds of things that we want to show and tell.” But what is left when Nemes eliminates the context? The images are blurred, the events reduced to plot points, and the ending opts for nihilistic bleakness over actual confrontation. What makes Son of Saul more troubling than the prestige films of its ilk is that the intellectualism that grounds the film ends up being just as simplistic as the melodrama that infuses Schindler’s List. Nemes has stunningly created the intensity of camps, but it is one of his own making — a product for his own pet theories, never exploring the real traumas of the past.
Peter Labuza is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California and the author of the book Approaching the End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film. He works as a freelance film critic, and hosts the podcast The Cinephiliacs.