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The Holocaust, from the view of a Jew assigned to pull bodies out of gas chambers and load them into the ovens for cremation. The land of nightmare in Lazlo Nemes’ Son Of Saul (2015), reviewed by Critic After Dark Noel Vera.

Lazlo Nemes’ extraordinarily shot and executed debut feature Son of Saul (Saul fia, 2015) answers a question I (and a few other folks) have been wondering about for some time: is there a new, fresh, perhaps even galvanizing way to realize the story of the Holocaust on the big screen?

I figure Nemes, having mentioned Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in interviews, is reacting to that film’s approach: a comprehensive museum of horrors that includes the closing of the Krakow Ghetto; random executions; nude footraces where camp prisoners literally run for their lives; a boy hiding in a cesspool, manure caking his cheeks and hair.

Brutally effective if not a little exploitative, but where would a filmmaker go from there? Two options immediately come to mind: either ramp up the atrocities (in which case Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth should probably whip up a script - add an ending where the Allies parachute down just in time to rescue the latest batch headed for the gas chambers) or pare away details, leaving a carefully calculated essence to suggest the rest of the uh ‘experience’.

Nemes’ solution is summarized in the film’s very first shot: an out-of-focus image, held for the longest time till the audience wonders if maybe they should notify the projectionist. Then movement: a figure approaches from the distance Lawrence Of Arabia-style, walking right up to the  center of the screen where he’s suddenly in giant closeup.

The rest of the film follows this man, Saul Auslander (poet-actor-filmmaker Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew working as a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz - new arrivals, mostly Jews, assigned to pull bodies out of gas chambers and load them into the ovens for cremation (because what they’re doing constitutes a war crime, some four months later a new set of Sonderkommando will be loading these silenced workers into the ovens in turn).

‘Follows’ is the operative word - the camera lingers on Saul’s face or hovers over the bright red “X” painted across his shoulder blades; the abominations around him are only dimly sensed, either out-of-focus images on either side of his head or all-too-vivid sounds - of heels being dragged across concrete floors, skulls cracked open by wood truncheons, people pounding fists and crying out faintly from behind steel doors.

It’s a simplification of sorts, but a cunning one; you strain to make out what’s going on in the blurred areas of the screen as your ears fill in with gruesome detail what your eyes can’t quite see. In a way it’s an approximation of Saul’s psychological defense mechanism, a sort of self-willed myopia that allows him not just to survive but operate if not actually thrive in this man-made Inferno.

The premise too is interesting: Saul encounters a boy who has miraculously survived gassing; the boy is set aside and promptly smothered to death by a guard while Saul hovers quietly (if tensely) nearby. From unquestioning cog in Nazi death machine Saul turns into a questioning, questing human being: can the boy’s body be spared from autopsy? Can a rabbi be found to pray over him, even if rabbis are shot on sight? At one point he’s asked why he’s doing all this and he replies without hesitation: the boy is my son.

Is he, really? Certain details cast doubt on that assertion, in which case the question arises whether or not Saul is still sane. Has myopia finally degraded into madness?

Nemes sustains the ambiguity and suspense for a remarkable amount of time, considering how little context we’re given. Who is Saul, really? Who’s the woman he talks to who acts as if she’s his wife? Why does he form a fixation on the child? And why do the other Sonderkommandos, who are busy working on a (historically true) plot to destroy the crematoriums, trust him so much?

We get few answers, but Rohrig’s face is such an eloquent sculpture of wariness and exhaustion you can’t help but be pulled along by Nemes’ presumed intentions, his desire to immerse you in his vision of hell.

Quite an achievement considering the films already produced, including Spielberg’s; the first half at the very least is gripping odyssey. Where the film stumbles alas is when Saul eventually manages a little headway into his maverick project and joins a work crew seeking The Renegade, a Greek rabbi (he finds him, but complications ensue).

You sense Nemes running out of ideas on how to get his hero in and out of situations while trying to expand the theme of damned souls seeking redemption; he wraps a Magic Cloak of Invisibility around Saul and shoves him about with near impunity (bumping into a Nazi officer, Saul only has to flinch and wait for the punitive blow).*

*(To be fair the outrageousness does work once, when Saul sets out to meet a doctor in his clinic to pick up the boy’s body and instead runs into a whole group of physicians accompanied by high-ranking officers… moment of breathless silence, while both Jew and Nazis try wrap their collective minds round the enormity of Saul’s screwup…)

The simplification Nemes employs becomes less artful and more stylized, more like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful where a father lies to his son to make concentration camp existence tolerable; in our case Nemes is the father and we the kids, and his lies become increasingly inadequate in hiding the camp’s awful truths.

At one point you stop thinking of Benigni’s movie (thank goodness) and start thinking of (may the saints forgive me) Hardcore Henry. Having once taken hold the idea is difficult to shake off; Saul does seem to wander into the right place at the right time, to do or say the right thing that will take him to the next level.

The finale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) is another kind of cheat - a transference of identity that imposes  transcendental significance on the offscreen slaughter. If the last half hour worked for you then this I suppose is lyrical indirection; if it doesn’t then this is a horrific cop-out, a souring sop for the spiritually inclined.

It doesn’t help that Nemes takes on the controversial subject of Sonderkommandos who if you listen to one account are despicable collaborationists, if you listen to another are pathetic victims.

Nemes in interviews has plunked firmly down on the side of ‘victim’ and his film reflects this - or would reflect it better if he hadn’t turned Saul into an unexpressive  holy fool who suddenly acquires the notion that proper burial of a random corpse is the antidote to his spiritual malaise. It’s one way to go, the direction Nemes takes, but doesn’t really address or even explicate the moral issues surrounding these men and women.

Not sure, really, if any recent film has treated the subject properly or imaginatively, and that includes the Spielberg; not sure if it’s possible at all. Maybe Resnais’ Night And Fog did it best, by admitting the impossibility of depicting the whole of the Holocaust, then in forty brief minutes sketching a surprisingly comprehensive and nuanced view anyway, with a few guesses on what might happen tomorrow (in effect: the Holocaust has never really left, just changed the identity of victim and victimizer). And so the struggle continues.

Note: You can also email Noel Vera here.

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