“Son of Saul,” the Holocaust hopeful of the 2016 Oscars, follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando, as he skirts his responsibility in a concentration camp uprising to secure a proper Jewish burial for a gas chamber victim he believes may be his son. It is predictably polarizing. Though it has been an awards season mainstay with large critical acclaim, the POV simulation and point-A-to-B plot machinations employed by director László Nemes have been compared to a video game and theme park ride and with that, concerns have arisen about good and bad taste. But how one is supposed to tastefully approach something historically tasteless such as the Holocaust, on the other hand, remains an unresolved debate. Holocaust cinema, like Holocaust studies in general, is of a few minds, all of them in a Talmudic bout over rules for textual interpretation.
Claude Lanzman's “Shoah” hangs over holocaust cinema the most. Its methodology of telling not showing, reversing the graphic concision of Alain Resnais' canonical “Night and Fog” for a 9-hour sprawl of oral rumination, made future filmmakers think twice about direct representation of atrocity for fear of desensitizing viewers. Ironically, given the amount of graphic violence on display, Lanzman gave his blessing to “Son of Saul,” possibly because the atrocities are reduced to a background blur and primarily communicated through innovative sound design. For some of the running time, it's an inspired technical choice: No matter how close the simulation takes us, the exact horrors of the camps remain beyond our full understanding.
While the Holocaust can be explained as the apex of western civilization's surge towards mechanized bureaucracy and capitalist industrialization, it left behind a collective trauma whose lived experience has been best approximated by postmodern fragmentation (even birthing the genre as a result). After a while, though, Nemes' frenetic long takes resemble less the studied observation of his former mentor Bela Tarr or nods to video game narrative than the masturbatory pyrotechnics of something like “Birdman.” At some point it's hard not to think of Jean Baudrillard's critique of NBC mini-series “Holocaust” that “one no longer makes the Jews pass through the crematorium or the gas chamber, but through the soundtrack and image. . . Forgetting, annihilation, finally achieves its aesthetic dimension in this way.” Baudrillard was critiquing shlock, but where “Saul” falters is by pretending it operates above schlock through a solemnity rooted in faux-realism when it might work best as Holocaust pulp.
“Inglourious Basterds,” the last film about historical responsibility that overtly acknowledged its pulpiness, illustrated how WWII as a genre has, as per Baudrillard's simulacrum, virtually eclipsed WWII as actual history. J Hoberman, in his defense of “Inglourious Basterds,” noted that the gold standard of Spielberg's “Schindler's List,” too “comforted audiences with similar, albeit less outrageous reversals (the list is life, not death, concentration camp showers gush water, not gas).” To an extent, a video game-like Holocaust film has as much room for nuance as a Holocaust film made by the director of “Jurassic Park,” and unlike “Schindler's List,” which cast Jews as avatars of suffering in the background of a gentile savior narrative, “Son Of Saul's” antihero's quest at least nods to Jewish agency, or what remains when denied any.
With a powdered pallor of crematorium ashes on his face, Géza Röhrig's near wordless, jerky mannerisms as Saul recall an actor in the Nazi-era battleground of silent films. His strained maneuverings around the death factory nearly work as commentary on both the alienation and annihilation of labor, as if Chaplin's “Modern Times” got spliced into the middle of “The Great Dictator.” The intention, though, is unclear and for the most part, Nemes doesn't seem interested in anything beyond visceral immediacy. That said, another debate, over whether Jewish resistance was limited due to excessive, historic passivity or if spiritual engagement, among other unarmed communal activities done in secret, should count for defying attempts at systematic dehumanization, can be read into the proceedings as well. While the denouement almost approaches midrashic parable, Cynthia Ozick's “The Shawl” this is not. What's hard to glean is whether Saul's self-destructive, one-note mission to give his child a proper Jewish burial is meant as moral affirmation amidst amoral dehumanization or an existential irony born of Jewish loss of faith after the camps. If the former, it seems unwise in its dichotomy. If the latter, unfair in its judgement. And without enlightening the audience further on the implications of either, it just feels like insult to injury.
“Son Of Saul,” directed by László Nemes, is now playing at the Charles Theater.