‘Son of Saul’
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‘Son of Saul’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Geza Rohrig as Saul in “Son of Saul,” written and directed by Laszlo Nemes.
Geza Rohrig as Saul in “Son of Saul,” written and directed by Laszlo Nemes.

There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the release of Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” 55 years ago had a profound effect on how America — and indeed the world —perceived Israel.

Who better to represent the new Jew than Ari Ben-Canaan, played by the handsome Paul Newman? But we often overlook the fact that it was many viewers’ first onscreen encounter with the Holocaust. Concentration camp survivors play a significant role in Leon Uris’s novel-turned-film; a major part of the story is about them. On board the ship Exodus, it is the survivors who demand to fight the British with a hunger strike. Then there is Karen, who chooses to remain onboard with her fellow survivors, rather than go to the safety of America with Kitty. But one of the most remarkable characters is Sal Mineo’s Dov Landau, the feisty young fighter. When Dov is being interrogated by the Irgun leadership to determine whether he would be able to join their organization, they demand that he share what he did in Auschwitz. He tries to evade their questions with a variety of answers, but Akiva Ben-Canaan pushes him to tell the full story, and we learn that he was a sonderkommando.

Uris deliberately wanted us to understand the transformation of Dov from Auschwitz sonderkommando into Israeli commando. Indeed, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who adapted Uris’s novel, felt this to be an important part of the story, a part of Holocaust history that always has been troublesome.

Writer Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, aroused ire in many readers when, in his effort to bear witness, he described “a disturbing but inevitable phenomenon” in Auschwitz. It was the “gray zone” that existed between the oppressed and their oppressors, where some prisoners joined their captors in beating and maltreating other prisoners. Levi wrote: “We are aware that this is very distant from the picture that is usually given of the oppressed.” He went on to suggest that in some situations, anyone’s conscience might be assuaged. What someone chooses to do in order to survive can be a troubling topic; in the ongoing discussion of the Holocaust, this remains one of the more disturbing issues.

It was the “special commando” who had the task of escorting Jews to their death in the “showers,” and clearing out the gas chambers once the victims were asphyxiated. It was these young, healthy Jews, supervised by a handful of SS or Ukrainian guards, who removed the dead bodies’ gold teeth and brought them to the crematoriums. Their role in the camps ultimately was the disposal of the bodies. Becoming a sonderkommando was a temporary commutation of your death sentence, but what would life be like once you made this choice?

Although most of them understood that they too would be murdered within a few months, there always was the possibility that liberation might be at hand. Indeed, some, like Dov Landau, did survive the war. If you could save your life by bargaining for a few months, would that be so wrong?

Is this the stuff that movies are made of? Fourteen years ago, Tim Blake Nelson made a film that he titled “The Grey Zone,” the first American film to touch on the question of what people did in the concentration camp to survive. The writer/director focused on the sonderkommandos and did a fairly good job tackling the moral dilemmas they faced. We watched, as spectators, as the actors on screen struggled with their choices. Now Hungarian writer/director Laszlo Nemes takes us into another sphere in his film “Son of Saul.”

Rather than watch from the audience, we become part of the action. We are there in the camp as the sonderkommandos tackle their various responsibilities and make their choices. If fact, we quickly become one with Saul in experiencing firsthand the terror that was synonymous with being a sonderkommando at Auschwitz.

“Son of Saul” is not your typical story of survival. The director wants us to feel as if we become Saul. We see every action through his eyes; we co-exist with him. Through the lens of a handheld camera — a technique that we are seeing more and more in today’s cinema — we take every step with Saul. We encounter every twist and turn together. If Saul seems uninterested or un-invested, all is out of focus; there is a steady flash of unintelligible images throughout. If something affects Saul, what we see is crystal clear.

The cinema frame is limited to what he sees. Much of the action is out of the frame; we continually hear barked commands and voices and the sounds of people around us. As our point of view is Saul’s, we seem to see more and hear less, but as writer/director Nemes told me, “Showing less was giving more to the viewer and hinting in a more effective way at the enormity of what took place there.

“I wanted to do something about the visceral experience that I had, based on testimonies that I had found,” he continued. “This was about the limitations of human beings in the middle of the concentration camp and the extermination process. I wanted to take the viewer in a very organic and immersive way through the story… on a human level, an individual level….

“We wanted for the viewer to have some sort of intuition— a mental perspective that is not limited.”

Nemes succeeds in making us feel as if we are there, in his hell. At times I questioned why I was watching this film and experiencing it. Had I not seen enough films on the subject? Elie Wiesel has famously lamented that cinema “trivializes” the Holocaust, and no one can in any way reconstruct the horror.

But in “Son of Saul,” Laszlo Nemes does succeed in immersing us in his “inferno.” By not saying too much and visually and aurally providing us with only one person’s perspective, we experience so much more. This film, which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film, is a masterpiece. New York-based actor Geza Rohrig gives an exceptional performance as Saul.

This is not a film for everyone, but I was glad I experienced it. Primo Levi wrote, “If understanding is impossible, recognizing is necessary, because what happened can happen again, consciences can again be seduced and obscured: even our own.”

If you like brilliant cinema, “Son of Saul” is a must. The film opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Film Forum in New York.

Eric Goldman writes and lectures about Jewish film. He teaches cinema at Yeshiva University’s Stern College in New York.

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