I can think of many hells in recent history the human race has dumped upon itself in its tribal folly to rule the world. We could begin with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Genocide as a state pastime
Carpet bombing Vietnam and then saturating the earth with the poison Agent Orange is another indictment on the capacity the human race has for genocide. Pol Pot and his purges in neighbouring Cambodia is another. Both regions of war accumulated a death and destruction total greater than the First and the Second World Wars combined. Then came the Sri Lankan government’s scorched earth policy against the Tamil Tigers, and any village or villagers who gave them sanctuary. There are too many to list from South America’s political history as created by the CIA, Chile writ larger than most. More recently we arrive at the Middle East and all the atrocities carried out there in the name of this or that rotten religious sect. The office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris must have been a hell for all of twelve minutes, the brief time it took to wipe out a huddle of cartoonists.
In all cases the killers who perpetrated those crimes claimed righteous revenge. They all say virtue is on their side, including the terrorists on our side.
The sad thing is, the great protector of democracy and liberty, the American government, is behind every one of those examples I cite, either by proactive choice, or inadvertently by gross miscalculation. But the USA didn’t create the Third Reich, and certainly never had a hand in Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Dachau. Back then, the USA was the good guy.
Save the bad guys
It is on record, however, USA agents protected some German Nazi’s fleeing justice until they achieved a safe haven, and it’s an accepted fact the US space industry is based on the work of Nazi rocket scientists who were offered a livelihood in the USA in return for their knowledge and skills. Less well known is the techniques of mind control normally called torture developed in Nazi death camps, and practiced in places such as Abu Ghraib.
Let no one suppose we are separated from the death camps by a new wave of respect for those who have a different culture from our own.
The height of efficiency
Nazi concentration camps were methodical, well-regimented factories for killing people hundreds at a time, on a conveyor belt, on schedule, denuded of all possessions and dignity. They were not obliterated by ‘strategic’ bombing, innocents caught in collateral damage. They were murdered by Nazi instruction typed on a memorandum.
They had a euphemism for everything in the camps to blank off the horrendous tasks they undertook. Burning the bodies newly gassed, the guards in Saul shout the command, “Burn the pieces”.
A brief diversion
By coincidence two independent films of late deal with man-made hell and an individual’s attempts to survive them.
Son of Saul is the main subject of this review, Dheepan is the other film shown at Cannes at the same time, which I saw last week. I can recommend both though they’re not stories fit for a fun night out at the pictures. There is nothing cinematically beautiful in either film, except for the last minutes in Saul when the anti-hero find himself in repose among a copse of verdant new-in-leaf woods. For the most part both films are encased in grim, monolithic concrete buildings.
The films were garlanded with prizes at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Hungary’s Grand Prix win was directed by László Nemes’, and Jacques Audiard’s directed ‘Dheepan‘ the Palme d’Or winner. Oddly, both stories deal with caretakers of sorts.
Last years jury consisted of the Coen brothers, and fellow directors Guillermo del Toro and Xavier Dolan, and actors Sophie Marceau, Sienna Miller and Jake Gyllenhaal. We here celebrate their mature taste in adult stories.
Two fine films in contention
It’s impossible to judge one film against the other. I fault only Dheepan’s heavy-handed cowboy shoot-out ending. It relies too much on Tarantino’s comic book scenarios. It just did not ring true. But until that point it’s a master class of story telling concentrating on the smallest detail. The tale concerns a reformed Tamil Tiger trying to scratch an existence in a Paris ghetto among drug smuggling gangs, and protecting the woman and girl he brings with him as an excuse he has a family, and therefore eligible for refugee status.
Son of Saul has a similar ending, a breakout from the camp, a few prisoners in possession of weapons, but it is dead men who have nothing to lose.
A rock solid masterpiece
Saul is the kind of masterpiece we hope the Scottish film industry is capable – correction: we know is capable – if only it could encourage enough indigenous talent to use film as an expression of story telling. The film vindicates the approach of the Hungarian Film Fund, headed by Budapest-born Hollywood producer Andy Vajna, which underwent fundamental reform four years ago, and which our own Creative Scotland won’t ever realise because it’s mired in benign bureaucracy.
The film was bought for North American distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. They say the Jews and the Italians run Hollywood, so it isn’t a surprise the film was seen as part of the “shared history” of countries that suffered from the war.
Saul takes place almost entirely in Auschwitz-Birkenau, late in the Second World War. Its protagonist is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jew who has been deported from his native Hungary in 1944. It was when Hungarian Jews arrived that the pace of murder in Auschwitz greatly accelerated—and when the Soviet Army was rumored to be approaching. The camp is both concentration camp for slave labour and an extermination camp.
Saul is a Sonderkommando, a squad of Jews ordered by the German overlords to facilitate the killing of other Jews. At the start of the film, Saul, with this group, ushers Jews from the dressing rooms, (where victims undress) rooms where they leave their clothing and valuables, into the showers, actually gas chambers.
The Sonderkommandos collect their valuables for the Germans, discards the clothing, and removes the corpses from the death chambers, scrub down the concrete floors of blood, vomit, and urine ready for the next batch of victims. Saul is not a collaborator. Sonderkommandos acted to save their lives, they were subjected to the same threats of murder as other Jewish inmates.
Closer than close up
The film is shot almost entirely in close ups, rarely off the emotionless, ashen, blank face of Saul. He knows he will die sooner or later. He performs his task like a funeral director who is certain the next coffin is his. The unfashionable 16mm framing was chosen to convey a feeling of claustrophobia, a sense we are there with Saul, unable to escape.
As Saul is dragging away bodies from a gas chamber, he thinks he sees his son. The boy is still alive, for a few minutes. The rest of the film concerns his attempts to find a Rabbi to give the boy a Jewish burial, a self-imposed task woven with the sub-story of his Sonderkommando inmates plan to escape. One odd detail—Saul’s son is said to be the issue of an adulterous affair; it’s as if Saul were redeeming his mischief as a callow youth.
Saul becomes an accidental rebel. He reminds us some Jews actively and violently resisted the Nazi death regime. His story overturns the demeaning cliché that Jews went to their death passively, “like sheep.” (Scotiaphobes fresh out of their minds use similar terms against Scotland’s independence supporters, naming them Nazis or sheep.)
There’s been many an attempt to show life and death in the Nazi camps, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List the most notable of recent times, but none with the graphic care of Saul. We witness it all, events held to the immediate background, slightly out of focus, in a shallow depth of field to engage our imagination.
The throat grasping photography is the work of Mátyás Erdély. He follows Saul’s increasingly demented attempts to regain his soul like a bat seeking out blood from a jugular vein. An alternative title is Soul of Saul.
Any cinematic depiction of the Holocaust is fraught with pitfalls. Nemes’ film is surely above such reproach. It’s relentless, horrifying, and skilfully implies the endless carnage going on in the background while driving forward a simple but powerful narrative which proves that, even in hell, you never stop being a parent. Behind the images, incessantly, growling without a pause, we hear the bellowing bowel sound of huge furnaces at work.
Son of Saul is that rare thing, a miniature masterpiece, made on a shoestring, integrity intact every shot, thankfully the nearest any of us shall get to the horror of death camps outside faded photographs taken by Nazi guards as an aide memoir for the mess room.
R rated, plus nudity.
- Rating: Five stars
- Director: László Nemes
- Starring: Géza Röhrig
- Writer: László Nemes, Clara Royer
- Cinematography: Mátyás Erdély
- Duration: 1 hr 47 mins