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Cannes Grand Prix Winner "Son of Saul": A Critical Review

06/10/2015 01:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

It is a daring film. Director László Nemes took the true context of the Sonderkommando -- the group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis in extermination practices at Auschwitz -- and invented a fictional story of one of its members, to create a subjective perspective of the unspeakable horror that is the Holocaust.

As the young new Hungarian director, descendent of Holocaust victims, told me: "The aim was to take the Holocaust out of the history books and bring it to the present. Mine is a generation that doesn't know much about anything now. It is a disconnected generation."

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The story Nemes invents: that of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, who when he sees a boy being murdered (apparently his son) becomes determined, and then obsessed, to give the boy a religious burial. Saul is so determined to honor this boy that not only does he take extraordinary risks to hide the cadaver--and to find a Rabbi to read the Kaddish mourning prayer-- but his mission becomes more important for him than helping the Sonderkommando plan a rebellion (the parallel story), which leads to a climatic dramatic clash. "You care more about the dead than the living!" cries one Sondercommando with fury.

The strength of Son of Saul, its fans would say, lies in its nervous immediacy. The director uses startling techniques to make us experience the madness of the camp viscerally. The first shot is out-of-focus, from the perspective of Saul who is trudging towards his work as a Sondercommando to collect the cadavers from the gas chamber. We hear the loud sounds of feet pounding, the desperate screams from the chamber, the guards barking orders. We are right there in the chaos, the horror, as the Sondercommando slump cadavers over their shoulders and come close to the frame, near us. The shallow-focus technique is used throughout the film, so we are constantly "glimpsing" traces of the horror in a fog, and hearing screams, just as the prisoners would. The aim is to disturb us with an acute sense of panic and incomprehensibility, at every instant.

However, I found the out-of-focus technique itself disturbing. I found it disturbing because it makes horror "titillating". Our eyes strain to see what is blurry, and there is quite enough in focus at the edges of the frame to see it all anyway: the child being suffocated by a man's hand, the bodies being taken to the ovens, the huge dusty grey piles of human ash. The director explained to me that he deliberately "only suggested" the horror, as he "did not want the viewer to be in the horror, because it is not understandable." Yet anyone who sees this film and thinks the horror is only "suggested" must be numb to graphic images of corpses being desiccated, humans screaming as they are pitched into ditches and shot.

Another questionable directorial choice to titillate: the majority of the corpses we "glimpse" are young women. We spy pretty young perky breasts as the cadavers go by. Never once an older woman. The Hollywood criteria on attractive women's bodies, it seems, touches even Auschwitz.

The majority of Cannes critics were wowed by this film, claiming that its extraordinary new film techniques were enough to warrant giving it a major prize [it won the Grand Prix]. For me, however, these experimental techniques were the reason I disliked it intensely. While contemplating the Shoah, I do not want to be distracted by the ever-obvious creative hand of the filmmaker. In Son of Saul, the director's artistry is more present than Auschwitz. Quieter Holocaust films--like Andre Singer's recent masterpiece Night Will Fall and of course Claude Lanzmann's Shoah-- deliberately let the subject speak for itself, in silences. In these films, the directors make their cinematographic choices as unobtrusive as possible, limiting the camerawork to pans on grassy fields which allow the viewer to imagine that which cannot be represented, or to careful suggestive cuts. They take a respectful distance from their subject, given its enormity and the inability to ever do it justice. We are not jerked around by a fake narrative that contains what it tells.

Of course, here I knowingly enter the longstanding and unresolved debate of what aesthetics are appropriate to dealing with the Shoah, a debate that began with Theodoro Adorno's famous statement "No Poetry after Auschwitz" (1951), and continues to this day, taken up with varied nuance by thinkers such as Saul Friedlander, Annette Insdorf, Casey Haskins and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Among these thinkers, there is no consensus on what aesthetics are "appropriate" (or even how to frame the question). It is just my personal verdict that the choices in Nemes' film are not.

To side-track to a minor issue: Nemes' film did not even seem that "new" for me, as it did for many of my impressed colleagues, who exclaimed about its "novelty." In fact, when the film began, I had déjà-vu. I had seen some of these scenes already, in a relatively unknown film The Grey Zone (2001) by actor-director Tim Blake Nelson. Nelson's film also is about the Sonderkommando rebellion at Auschwitz, based upon the same archival text that Nemes used as source material: , Voices from Beneath the Ashes. Nelson also filmed the camp from the Sonderkommandos' perspective. In his film as in Nemes', noise is exceptionally present. In both films, we hear the Sonderkommandos whispering to each other as they walk jerkily about the rooms, close to the frame. In both films, the gas chamber "undressing" room is filmed with a muted color palate, intense close-ups, and loud sound, while men trudge by with cadavers slung over their shoulders.

The two films are uncannily similar.

I asked the director if he knew The Grey Zone, which relatively few people have seen, given its low distribution.

"Yes," Nemes said at once, blushing. "But mine is an Anti-Grey Zone! Imagine, in The Grey Zone, the inmates spoke in English. Also Nelson's film shows too much, relying on constant emotional upheaval that is theatrical [....] We used a restrained strategy to tell very little. When you are not limited, cinema can take you to over-expression and spectacle."

Yet Nelson's film, which shows the unchanging rooms in full graphic horror, without a shallow-focus lens teasing the viewer, is far from theatrical, in my view. Rather, The Grey Zone disturbs with its careful attempt at realism. As the Holocaust film scholar Aaron Kerner writes: "Nelson attempts to treat the industrialization of death as dramatized fact as opposed to spectacle, de-emphasizing the fetishistic and sadistic viewing position with a matter-of-fact shooting strategy".

In fact, while Nemes innocently claimed that he wanted to reduce spectacle, I would counter that the reason his film wowed critics is precisely because it is spectacular.

Now I will admit that my alienation from the excessive aesthetics of Nemes' film--and the spectacular effect---might have been tempered if I had actually been taken by the story told. Here lay the crucial problem of Son of Saul for me. I did not believe in Saul. I did not think the actor-poet Geza Rohrig managed to capture (or could possibly capture) the unimaginable mental state of an Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner. The actor's haunted eyes--which the camera focuses on for the duration of the film--were not sufficient. I could not believe in this man nor in his (ridiculous) mission. I lost all credibility in Saul's bond with his son, a son who remains a cadaver, with no identity.

Moreover, is there a real "story" there to believe in? The film leaves it vague who the mother of this child is, and whether the man ever even knew this boy. The choice to leave these vital details undefined may be deliberate, making the "son" a metaphor (???), however, I suspected that these background factors had just not been developed in the script. Indeed when I asked both the director and his co-screenwriter to explain to me who the mother was, they both blurted out two different answers, then looked at each other aghast. And as Saul loses credibility, so does his mission: the sacred meaning of a burial deflates to absurdity -- and becomes a matter of grabbing Rabbis out of the firing line -- which does a disservice, in my view, to the religious impulse. It is unclear what beliefs are motivating Saul, or whether he has any; and when I asked the director directly what Saul's relationship to religion was, he noted that time was up for our interview.

The need to honor a murdered son with a religious ceremony, in the context of a world where humanity and dignity are gone, is a beautiful premise. But once one does not believe in Saul, the story becomes a gimmick -- and verges on the obscene -- whatever the filmmaker's well-meaning intention.