Geza Rohrig in ‘Son of Saul’ (2015)
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For 70 years the titles have tumbled forth. From The Pawnbroker to The Pianist; from Shoah to Schindler’s List to Son of Saul. Yet still we on Planet Cinema, and Planet Earth, have no answer to the most enduring question prompted by the Holocaust. How are we to “remember” a reality we cannot grasp or fully understand, even now, try as we may?

If the helplessness is the same, though, the reasons for it have changed and fluctuated. Those who first stumbled on the horrors of the death camps could declare a powerlessness before the unprecedented. They could say, “How do you speak about the unspeakable or the never-spoken-of-before?” The fittest response for early films, born in the decade after war, was just to show and gaze. That was the strategy — and surely the force — of Alain Resnais’s great Nuit et brouillard, his 1955 documentary musing on the nightmare of Auschwitz.

Today, if we still cannot grasp the Holocaust, it may be through having too many perspectives, not too few. As the opinion mills grind and the hindsight factories whirr, we are confounded by choice. It’s a world of paradox worthy of Borges. Paradox number one: the more movies we see, or the more history we read, the less we feel we understand. Too many minds have tilted, and are still tilting, at these satanic windmills. Paradox number two (which may, paradoxically, seem the opposite of number one): the most deeply disturbing human epoch still remembered by living survivors is being “remembered” more and more, the fewer of those survivors are among us.

The number of Holocaust-themed movies released each decade has grown, not shrunk. So has the empire of the Holocaust’s influence on cinema narrative: from the tormented inquests and chamber dramas of the 1960s (Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker), through to later films that queasily amped up the melodrama and psychodrama (Visconti’s The Damned, Cavani’s The Night Porter), to the 1990s and beyond, when comedy (Life Is Beautiful), thriller (Apt Pupil) and even Tarantino’s higher hokum (Inglourious Basterds) have shared the acoustic of apocalypse with Schindler’s List and The Pianist.

Son of Saul, from Hungary, is the latest film about the death camps to find an international audience. A coruscating movie with an original vision, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. It offers — according to your view — either a further enrichment of understanding or a further demonstration, expressed with new intensity, that we still understand nothing.

Laszlo Nemes, director of ‘Son of Saul’, at the Cannes Film Festival in May

Laszlo Nemes’s film is different from any screen treatment before. It enlightens because it offers no enlightenment. It is a vision, holistic in horror, of uncomprehending, uncomprehended chaos. As he hustles his Sonder­kommando protagonist through the Hell-halls of Auschwitz, a handheld camera seeming to cling to this fortyish Jewish Hungarian’s back, Nemes offers a pageant that is almost mute, aghast in its eviscerating near-abstractness.

Shortage of dialogue does not preclude infernal sound effects: an ostinato of flames, machinery, human screams. Nor does lack of “message” mean that a film has no meaning. Nemes, a lanky, boyish 38-year-old, who was looking a little spooked by the acclaim when I met him in the aftermath of Cannes, says he thought about the film for 15 years before making it.

There was a personal ghost, needing exorcism, of ancestral suffering: “We had parts of our family wiped out in Auschwitz and Birkenau,” he says. Nemes believes also that Holocaust cinema — Hollywood-based at least, or rooted in the values of western humanism — had travelled too far and for too long in the wrong direction.

“In these films there’s a strategy of reassuring the audience,” he says of movies from Sophie’s Choice and Life Is Beautiful to (even) Schindler’s List. “They know where the guilt lies, they know who the bad guys are and who is organising this evil. Visually their stories ‘encompass’ the narrative and its emotions and morality. So the story is reassuring somehow, even when it’s shocking.”

Son of Saul is his way of answering back. “The immersive strategy gives rise to something completely different. You (the viewer) cannot channel what you bring to the film from everything that has been taught you. You are in the here and now. You are in the middle of it. We wanted to make a film that was completely uncharted. We didn’t quite know how it would work, on a conscious or unconscious level.”

Liam Neeson in ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

In my Cannes review of Son of Saul I raised an objection or doubt. The main plot or subplot is the hero’s quest to have a boy’s body, recently retrieved from a gas chamber, given last rites by a rabbi. (It may or may not be Saul’s own son.) I took issue with this strange, obsessive odyssey on the same grounds that I disliked — and still dislike — the main plot in Saving Private Ryan. The European inferno of slaughter and suffering is stepped through, or sidestepped, by Spielberg’s film, for the quest to find the single surviving son of a mother who has lost her other boys. Never mind the dying thousands all around. Just focus on Matt Damon and Mission Momma’s Boy.

“I read your review,” Nemes responds. “There’s a moral difference. In the centre of Hell that was Auschwitz, or the other extermination camps, all these people are already ‘dead’. There is no hope. There is no rescue. Hope has to do with the postwar conception of the Holocaust, which revolves around stories of survival. It’s a cinema that has concentrated on the exceptions that make the rule. Whereas in Auschwitz the rule was just that: death.”

So this cinema has sentimentalised the Holocaust? “Absolutely.”

In Son of Saul the only possible escape for the inmates is a mental escape. “This very simple man wants to bury this child, because it’s an inner voice igniting an inner story and an inner freedom. Even if his deeds seem senseless to every­one around him. It makes sense to him. And it makes sense to the viewer, even though there’s a conflict. For the viewer says: ‘In this fragmented reality, should I stick with the pitiful people who are dying or should I pay attention to him?’ He is the intermediary at the centre of the drama. So it’s a different mechanism for telling a story.”

Different mechanisms for telling the same story. Who is to say that we’re not condemned, we inmates of Concentr­ation Camp Earth, to keep turning and turning this Holocaust story, like the slaves pushing the milling stone in a Cecil B DeMille epic?

Roberto Benigni in ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997)

It’s right that we should. Right that we should remember, and try to keep remembering, a dark age darker than the Dark Age. It’s right, too, that each succeeding generation should feel licensed to reject the perspective of its predecessor. Son of Saul has value and power because it addresses past cinema, finds its wanting and presents its own vision. Or even a kind of consummating non-vision.

Ordered chaos is the new creation. The Holocaust was an event dedicated to nihilism in its totemic totality; to the denial of not just life but the principles of life. Freedom, autonomy, individualism, difference. It enthroned death as god, artist and arbiter, and oblivion — the oblivion dealt to others — as solution and Utopia.

Yet that oblivion confers, unwittingly, an authority on its very victims. Nemes quotes Primo Levi in addressing the impossibility of “understanding” the Holocaust or even properly depicting or dramatising it. “Levi said, ‘I’ve been through Auschwitz but I haven’t grasped what it was. Only those who died can tell about it. The witnesses are merely the survivors.’ ”

That’s why Nemes used, for part of his inspiration, writings and even pictures left or smuggled out by the Sonderkommandos. These, at least, survived the deaths of their creators.

Life is short, art is long; especially, in some eras, the art of those who have seen life’s shortness at first hand; who have seen the blaze of life’s preciousness lit, as it never can be more distinctly and vividly, by the flames about to destroy and devour it.

‘Son of Saul’ opens in the US on December 18, and in the UK on April 1

Photographs: Sony Pictures Classics; Rebecca Marshall; Alamy; Allstar

Letter in response to this article:

The world-shattering meaning of Auschwitz / From Allen Tobias

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