Representing The Impossible

Cinema will never be able to represent the horrors of the Holocaust, but Son of Saul offers a sensitive try, writes Jem Bartholomew

Sony Pictures Classics

Post-war art seemed to reflect Theodore Adorno’s dictum, that ‘poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. But, perhaps through the passing of time and distance, we became ‘able’ or ‘ready’ to see more accurate artistic depictions of the Holocaust. In terms of cinema, the epic scale Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), then Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) illustrate this trend. Yet Nemes’ Son of Saul differs significantly from these grand-historical-narratives of horror. It powerfully identifies the futility of ever truly representing horrors of the Holocaust through art, while simultaneously providing the fullest and most human realisation of the inner workings of concentration camp life.

Son of Saul forces us to comprehend the internal anti-logic of a death camp through the eyes of a Sonderkommando – prisoners who gained ‘privileges’ if they helped oil the mechanic process of killing. The depiction of camp ‘order’ is both shocking and thought provoking. The Internal hierarchies among prisoners (between Jews, ‘politicals’, and POWs), the inmates’ de-sensitivity to mortality, the repetitive working day, reducing horror to mundane routine – all are complexities of camp life usually overlooked by directors.

By forcing those persecuted to participate as a small cog in a ruthlessly efficient, evil machine of genocide, the fascists tried to erode their humanity. Having studied the period and read many memoirs by Holocaust survivors, I’m all too familiar that they were often successful in this endeavour. The surviving Sonderkommando Paul Steinberg wrote, “We were the beasts they had made of us.” Son of Saul is one man’s attempt to retain his humanity, as he struggles to search for a Rabbi to perform a burial for a young boy. This act of defiance is an attempt to preserve both his humanity and his religious identity in a world stripped of hope. Saul’s resistance is on a personal level, in contrast to the armed resistance his inmates plan for. Over the course of the film these two types of inmate resistance frequently collide and disrupt each other. This moral dilemma has the audience involved until the last.

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Son of Saul doesn’t appropriate the Holocaust for grand cinematic imagery. This is a very personal, internal story, focusing on one individual and the moral complexity of his situation. The shallow focus and close camera-work maintain an engaging sense of claustrophobia throughout, making for superb dramatic intensity.

Art will never be able to truly express such horrific human atrocities. The unbridgeable chasm between the screen and the viewer make cinematic representations of the Holocaust inherently inadequate. Once the credits roll, the viewer can leave the hush of the cinema pews and return to the comfort and safety of their normal life. However, what Son of Saul does offer is a sensitive and unflinching exploration of the intricacies of concentration camp life, allowing us a poignant window on a world of trauma we’ll never be able to truly comprehend. We’ll never be able to truly represent the Holocaust, but Nemes’ power comes in expression precisely this inability to represent the Holocaust.