Son of Saul: Another Artistic Absurdity

Henryk Grynberg

Contrary to its advertising, Son of Saul does not contribute much, if anything, new to  the art of filming the Holocaust except a stronger dose of violence, dehumanizing cruelty, and voyeurism of dehumanized flesh, so graphic that contemporary language would describe it as pornographic except that it  lacks the passion of actual pornography. Cold-blooded horror is of course not a novelty, either, especially in painting, literature and documentary films, which seem to handle the subject of the Holocaust much better than features do—indeed it should be noted that Son of Saul does make signficant use of archival footage. The amount of violence and naturalistic nudity in the film is quite consistent with the prescription for sensational success, but the exploitation involved is too obvious and the introductory exposition so long and revolting that after half an hour I wanted to leave. I stayed only because my son Adam wanted to see what came next. And I do not regret this decision, because the second half  is a well-composed suspense with a surprising twist at the end. The question is, what to make of it?

Saul, an enslaved worker in a slaughterhouse of human meat (counted as ‘pieces’) tries to find among his fellow prisoners a rabbi who can help him ritually bury the body of a boy whom he – symbolically – calls his son. The traditionally Jewish name indicates that Saul is not quite an assimilated Jew, yet he seems unaware that a Jewish burial does not require a rabbi and that for reciting the kaddish one needs ten men not a rabbi. While washing the dead body, he uncovers his head, instead covering it. For this  kind of Jew, a secular ritual should have sufficiently honoured the dead. Moreover, Jewish ethics requires first and foremost saving life rather than sacrificing it for the sake of a dead body as the film  both implies and emphasizes. And if the hero, in spite of his Jewish name, is so remote from Jewish tradition and culture that he does not know even this basic commandment, then he cannot claim to be fighting for Jewish principles. The somewhat pretentious symbolism of his last name, Ausländer (foreigner, alien), does not explain his actions, but only adds to the confusion. A possible explanation may be that he is insane, as the dullness of his facial expression seems to indicate. In which case, we are dealing here with an easy and cheap approach, rather than another preposterous, although piquant, anecdote on an overwhelming subject.

For the second time in a row, following last year’s Ida (see The Aftermath, Ida et Cetera at, the Film Academy has been fooled into awarding an Oscar to a clever absurdity.  The two films also have this in common that in both the leading roles are entrusted to non-actors, who actually do not act: hence, the invariably dull (and boring) expression of Saul’s face and his monotonous voice. If this was a deliberate artistic decision, then it was wrong, because the actual actors who are Saul’s partners in the same Sonderkommando are able to convey a natural scale of human feelings,he from horror to stupor and from passivity to defiance. An untrained actor in a leading role is not a new invention either, if one recalls the Italian realism of more than half a century ago with Bicycle Thieves as a classic. But the Holocaust is a more demanding subject.