The Holocaust never goes away. It’s been 70 years and there are more movies, plays, novels, documentaries, TV programs all the time. As the overriding historical event of the twentieth century, the Holocaust is now more than history. It is symbol, metaphor, and analogy.
Laszlo Nemes’ film, “Son of Saul” won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, quite an achievement for a first feature, and is Hungary’s official selection for the best foreign language Oscar. Set in 1944 in Auschwitz Birkenau, the film is a hellish recreation of what surely felt like hell on earth. The chaotic opening scenes are all terror and anguish as people are hustled off trains and stripped of their clothes, then pushed into rooms to be “showered,” rooms we know they will never leave. We hear Germans shouting, children crying, shrieking and moaning. It is an almost physical assault of sight and sound.
Moving through this Hades is Saul Auslander, a youngish member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jews assigned the task of working in the killing rooms. With deadened eyes, Saul moves quickly and efficiently to gather the clothing of the victims, rifle through their pockets, put different items where they belong, and get ready for the next trainload. He is a worker in a factory that makes corpses. As portrayed by Geza Rohrig, Saul is barely alive himself, devoid of thought or feeling. Although other members of the group are planning a rebellion, Saul is uninterested. He knows that his unit will soon be eliminated and another man will take his place. Why bother?
What gives Saul a reason to go on is his discovery of a boy’s body on the pile of the dead. Saul believes the boy is his son and he cannot allow the body to go to the ovens. Instead, he sets out to rescue the body from an autopsy, find a rabbi, and give the child a Jewish burial.
This quest provides the film its narrative structure, but what makes “Son of Saul” unusual among the Holocaust canon is its concentration on the viewer’s sensual experience. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely shoots almost entirely in shallow focus, rarely moving away from Saul’s face, leaving the rest of the scene blurred out. We catch glimpses of what is happening around Saul, and there is the constant cacophony of different languages–German, Hungarian, Yiddish–amidst the sounds of shooting and screaming. It makes for an intense viewing experience.
Yet I found “Son of Saul” uncomfortably exploitative. When we actually can see bodies heaped up, they are too often the naked bodies of women. The unremitting yelling and noise made me want to distance myself from the chaos, and I felt overwhelmed by the dark, confusing images shot over Saul’s shoulder. Nemes may want us to feel as crushed as the prisoners did, but the onslaught interfered with my identification with Saul, and ultimately I didn’t believe that he would rouse himself to take such risks for a dead child who we are never sure is actually his son. In addition, Saul is a secular Jew without even the most minimal Jewish knowledge, so it’s hard to believe that burying a child is the act that ignites his Jewish soul. “Son of Saul” made me wonder where the line was between high cinematic art and atrocity porn.
And What if the Nazis Had Won?
Another Holocaust-themed story is streaming on Amazon, and it is also notable mostly for how it looks. “The Man in the High Castle” is based on Philip K. Dick’s alternative history where the Axis win the war and divide the U.S., with the eastern half ruled by the Nazis and the West Coast the province of the Japanese. Dick’s work has often been adapted for the screen: “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” are based on his stories. I never read “The Man in the High Castle” so don’t know how good an adaptation this is, but the series has far less plot than it needs to fill out 10 episodes. The acting isn’t great either, but “The Man in the High Castle” sure looks cool. Since there was never any post-war boom, the U.S. in 1962 looks dreary and impoverished, as if the Depression never ended. It’s all gray and grimy, except in the Nazi offices, where everything looks highly polished. Brilliant red swastika banners hang from skyscrapers in New York City, and out west, Japanese aikido and gardening are all the rage. For some reason that’s never explained, there’s a neutral zone around the Rockies.
Lead actress Alexa Davalos, who eerily resembles Jennifer Jones, never changes her doleful expression as Juliana Crain, and the young Nazi secret agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) isn’t much better. Rufus Sewell is more effective as the SS official John Smith, but he is battling against a peculiarly listless script.
The story starts out promisingly when Juliana sees her sister Trudy killed by Japanese police in San Francisco. Learning that Trudy is involved with the resistance, and suddenly inspired to take great risks, Juliana gets the reel of film her sister was supposed to deliver to somebody in the neutral zone and impulsively gets on a bus to complete the mission. Since there is next to no character development, this doesn’t make much sense, but what the hey. We don’t know what’s on the film either, or why it is important that it reach the man in the high castle, its supposed destination.
The first episode ends with a satisfying surprise, and the story remains absorbing until Juliana decides she has to return to San Francisco. Then it all grinds down to a crawl. The lead characters–Juliana, her part-Jewish boyfriend Frank, Joe, and John Smith–continue to do things that really don’t make sense, and they do them at a strangely languid pace. It’s the secondary characters that hold more interest: the spiritual Japanese trade minister, a disillusioned German officer who tries to prevent war between the Germans and Japanese, a simpering antiquities dealer who sells Frank bullets.
It’s not great, but it passes the time until this weekend when Amazon’s superb and very Jewish series “Transparent” launches its second season. A wonderful Hanukkah gift for us all.