Antigone in the Camps
Dir. Laszlo Nemes, Hungary, 2015, 107 minutes
Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. His job is to escort Jewish prisoners from the cattle trains that arrived at the camp entrance, to get them undressed and into the gas chambers. Once the killing is done, his job is to clear away the bodies for burning, and to ready the gas chambers for the next trainload of victims.
When a young man survives the gas chamber, defying the inevitability of the foregone fate of everyone sent to the camp, the youth, whom Saul views as a son, is killed by a camp doctor — one step above a Sonderkommando. Saul then plans an impossible response – to have a rabbi say Kaddish for the dead youth and to give the youth a burial. Attending to the dead with dignity is an unthinkable task in a factory of death – like Antigone defying the ban on burying her brother, in a place where any independent act is punished by death.
Son of Saul, a first feature of wrenching tactility by Laszlo Nemes (a former assistant to Bela Tarr), turns up the sound and the fatalism of industrialized killing. Think of a slaughterhouse staffed by the same people who are being killed by the thousands every day – corpses in waiting who toil to grease the wheels of the SS machine. You could call Son of Saul a silent film – there isn’t much speaking – yet the sound of the extermination machinery is deafening.
Nemes overwhelms you with the relentless momentum of a process that the Nazis had refined by 1944. Geza Rohrig as Saul is the man who introduces a moral dimension into a world where morality has been burned with innocent women and children and the camp population, within hours of arrival, becomes a mass of indistinguishable corpses. If Rohr’s face is any indication, the former kindergarten teacher has taken in the depth of horror in Son of Saul. You see it in his face in almost every frame of the film.
Nemes and Rohrig turn the strengths of Tarr’s legacy – long painful takes, the grim exploration of inner emotion, the banishment of romance and euphemism – into anguished drama in an enclosed space. Given the advances in the technology of extermination by 1944, there were plenty of opportunities for purposeful personal malice. Is this a new cinematic language, as many in the press (who know nothing about the historical facts of the camps) are suggesting? The horrific noise of the death camps is recalled time and again in survivors’ memoirs, and the sound that has been part of war films since the final battle in Saving Private Ryan, is now part of Holocaust cinema. Like packing Jews into trains for days without food and water and stripping off their clothes, smothering them with noise destroys the will to resist, if there’s any left. What we’re missing in cinema is another sensory part of those survivors’ tales, the stench of rotting mass graves and burning flesh that covered the landscape for miles around.
Without giving away the grim end of this film about the certainty of death, let’s just say that this film ends where it begins, with the hope against hope of bringing humanity to the darkest inevitability. It serves the goal of fiction best by staying with the facts. And the fact is that few of the deportees, including the Sonderkommandos, came back.
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