“Therefore choose life.” There are a whole lot of commandments–not to mention rules, regulations, exhortations, prescriptions, proscriptions etc, etc–in the Hebrew Bible, but I was taught that this was number one. Even during periods as extreme as the Spanish Inquisition, one should always choose Life. Pull down the shades, light the candles, and say the Shema in the privacy of your own home… but in public, choose Life!
So I am more than a little astonished that both of New York’s film critics groups–NYFCC (New York Film Critics Circle) and NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online)–have selected Son of Saul–a film about a Jewish man who deliberately chooses death over life–as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2015. I mean really: If you can’t find Jewish film critics in New York…
The Saul in Son of Saul is a Hungarian Jew named “Saul Ausländer” (Géza Röhrig) who finds himself in Auschwitz in October, 1944. Saul is a member of the 12th Sonderkommando. For some people, this fact may not mean much, but for those of us who have spent a significant portion of our lives learning about the Holocaust, it means a great deal. It means that Saul is at the very time and place when people in the most horrific of circumstances–men and women–found the courage, strength and determination to subvert their Nazi assassins by blowing up Crematorium #3.
As the opening crawl explains “Sonderkommandos were work units made up of Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed almost entirely of Jews who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust.” [Note that these are actually words from Wikipedia, but the words in the opening crawl of Son of Saul are almost identical.] The additional information–that Saul Ausländer is a member of the 12th Sonderkommando and that the time is October, 1944–indicate that Saul Ausländer–protagonist? maybe. hero? definitely not.–was a bit player in the Nazi liquidation of Hungarian Jewry–one of the largest and most infamous mass murders in human history.
The first part of Son of Saul is a stunning recreation of the Auschwitz Death Factory, and director László Nemes and his co-screenwriter Clara Royer should certainly be commended for the care and attention they have given to getting this part right. The term “Concentration Camp” is now used so loosely that many people never realize that in addition to “Concentration Camps,” “Work Camps,” “Slave Labor Camps,” and “Prisoner of War Camps” (all of which–to the shame of mankind–have been seen in other times and other places), the Nazis also ran several “Death Factories” in which the only “labor” performed was the mass production of millions of corpses (usually by gassing), followed by the processing of these millions of corpses (usually by burning) after all their possessions–typically including the gold in their teeth–had been confiscated.
The other Vernichtungslager–Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka–were pure Death Factories. [“Unlike other Nazi concentration camps across German-occupied Europe, in which prisoners were used as forced labour for the German war effort, death camps (Vernichtungslager) like Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibór had only one function: to kill those sent there.“] But the case of Auschwitz is complicated by the fact that every kind of awful activity happened within the barbed wire of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Complex. People of many nationalities worked there. People of many nationalities were exterminated there. People of many nationalities died there of abuse, exhaustion, and disease.
Nevertheless, in the part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Complex in which Saul Ausländer worked, the job was to accomplish “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question” [“systematically exterminate the Jewish population in Nazi-occupied Europe through genocide“] and to the extent that Son of Saul shows that Saul Ausländer worked in a Death Factory modeled on any other industrial manufacturing enterprise–say, for example, a steel mill–it has performed a valuable service. As horrible as conditions may have been in the Interment Camps in which American citizens of Japanese Descent were held after Pearl Harbor, and horrible as conditions may be in Gaza today, the label “Death Factory” does not apply, and by showing us how a Death Factory actually operated, Nemes and Royer have made this abundantly clear to anyone who actually watches Son of Saul.
But then the plot kicks in… And the second half of Son of Saul undercuts almost everything that was accomplished in the first half. Nemes and Royer are not content to show us the hell in which Saul Ausländer–and men like him–actually labored. They feel compelled to give us a wider view. So they create a narrative thread that puts him in just the right place at just the right time to see more parts of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Complex than anyone in Saul Ausländer’s position could possibly have witnessed with his own eyes. When the subject is Auschwitz, use of this cinematic trope–well-known from earlier films like Forrest Gump and Zelig–is a shonda (Yiddish for shame/scandal).
Worse even than the degree to which they play on the emotions of their audience (with a bogus story about a father who wants to bury his son), Nemes and Royer betray the true story of those who participated in the well-documented events of October, 1944. These individuals–whose names are by and large unknown–destroyed a key component of the infrastructure the Nazis had built specifically to kill Jews. Did any Jews survive because there were fewer ovens? We will never know. What we do know is that no matter how many times they were begged to do so, the Allies refused to bomb the train tracks that were also a necessary part of the same infernal infrastructure. Only the Jews of the 12th Sonderkommando succeeded. May their memories be for blessing.
© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (12/24/15)
Top Photo: Géza Röhrig as “Saul Ausländer.”
Bottom Photo: Members of the 12th Sonderkommando line up to be counted. We know they are members of a Sonderkommando because the red X signifies they are not to be killed in the “ordinary course of events.” They are only to be killed once the Nazis decide they have outlived their usefulness…
Photo Credits © 2015 LaoKoon