The problem with representing the Holocaust on film is that you are making entertainment, and that is uneasy when you are talking about the 20th Century’s greatest scar. I’m not suggesting that the Holocaust is sacred amongst all obscenities but it’s a defining event for a number of reasons; firstly the murder, secondly the mechanisation of murder talks to us about the danger of progress and, finally, I think guilt plays a part, not only in the ‘people like us’ nature of both perpetrator and victim but also the underlying feeling that had the Nazi’s not had a racial insanity and poured resources into their clinically, bureaucratically, named ‘final solution’ or viewed Eastern European people as lesser, they may have won. The Reich broke itself on the Soviets and the victims of the Holocaust and the Western world reaped the benefit. Treading carefully feels like the least we could so.
So how do films adequately deal with this?
Of all the Holocaust / Nazi atrocity cinema (discounting documentaries) there’s three that really stand out. Good (2008) is interesting in that it follows the proverbial ‘good German’ who makes small compromises until he finds himself in the Bosch like madness of a concentration camp. Come and See (1985) is a stunning work that shows the SS war machine at it’s most unchecked. The village massacre scene acts as a counterpoint to the too controlled, too aesthetically neat ghetto clearance that features in Schindler’s List (1993) and, years later, would find itself mirrored on Jake and Dino’s Chapman’s art work Hell (2000). Now we have Son of Saul (2015).
With a perfect match of form and content Laszlo Nemes’ film puts us right into Auschwitz as it follows a member of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoner’s forced to carry out manual labour in the camp) who finds the body of his son amongst the dead and sets out to give the boy the decency of a funeral. Nemes uses a 4:3 frame (recalling Shoah (1985)) and rarely moves away from keeping the central character in shallow focus. This simple technique keeps the sights but does not wallow in the detail, allowing the film to rival The Revenant (2015) in terms of it’s visceral feel whilst, crucially, keeping humanity centre stage and reminding us of the sheer human work that went into the machine.
Son of Saul is a great piece of cinema that, despite the constant presence of death and suffering, is so much more alive than similar films as it forgoes the cinematic comfort of survival and instead offers a tale of a person reclaiming agency and purpose in a man made hell.