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Son of Saul Commentary - beware possible spoilers

What is Survival? What is Failure?

Those are the questions this film makes me ask myself.

I had seen a film called “The Grey Zone” several years ago – which is also about the Sonderkkommando. So the concept and the basic story were familiar to me, in that respect. That movie had been disturbing and haunting enough. However, this film, while upsetting on most of the same levels, seemed somehow more jarring. In trying to figure out why I felt even more affected by “Son of Saul” I came to think it’s mainly due to the cinematography. I feel like the cinematography actually forms its own language in the gaps lefts by the lack of dialog and emotional display by the actors.

In watching “Son of Saul” the thing that hit me immediately was the point of view of the camera. So much of the time the camera is held closely on the one character, and mostly from behind him. It gave me this feeling of standing beside him rather than watching a person performing for me. The choice of camera angle and framing gives me the sense of close quarters and intensity. It also produces a low level of anxiety, in that, as in real life, you’re never quite sure what is behind you. And there’s also this constant sense of not being able to look anyone in the eye.

The fact that so much of the background is left out of focus in the frame had a huge impact on me as well. There’s an anxiety and a chaos I felt by not being able to see what’s going on beyond. There are all these sounds of yelling, crying, violence, etc., etc., for which I’m not being given an image. I am left to imagine it myself, and that might actually make it worse. The lack of focus in the rest of the frame also gives me the sense that he’s just ‘keeping his head down’ and doing his tasks. There’s a narrowness to Saul’s point of view that is communicated by that out of focus space.  And that it is perhaps meant to signify a combination of him trying not to draw attention to himself, and also that he has probably reached the limit of detail he is capable of registering. You feel, through these choices of framing and focus, that he is just deeply in survival mode.

There is a vagueness to certain aspects of the story that I loved. For example, we are given no real back stories for anyone. We’re just meeting them in the moment, and the moment is all they have. Saul’s attachment to the boy isn’t really explained. He tells people he’s his son, but they immediately assert he has no son. Does he? We’re not expressly told in the film.  Personally, I think the boy is not actually his son. I think his attachment is based on the fact that in this numbed survival mode Saul has existed within, this one “piece” as the Germans call the people they’re murdering, this “it”, as the doctor refers to the boy, has returned to seeming like a person to Saul. 

I think, he feels awaken to the humanity of the boy amidst the blur of factory killing and disposal going on around him, and it touches him. I think he is so desperate to find a Rabbi to say the Kaddish for the boy for the sake of everyone else, including himself soon, for whom it will not be said. I think the need to do right by the boy, is a kind of attempt to set right all the wrongs he has no control over. And, in a way, it is also a form of rebellion. Yes, his obsession with boy thwarts the overall plan to blow things up - but I feel like even in this tiny way Saul is raging against the machine as the clock runs out on his own life. Like giving this one boy a proper burial will mean that the Nazi’s can kill him, and he knows they will, but that cannot fully kill his sense of decency and self-identity.

And while it’s extremely depressing that no one physically survives in the end, I appreciate the honesty of it. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a ‘feel good’ movie with a happy ending, though that’s not really what I expect from a Holocaust movie. But, while, survival stories are uplifting, they couldn’t be called common when it comes to this topic. I think the Director said it best, and beautifully, in one of the interviews we were asked to read when he said, “My film is not about survival; it is about the reality of death. Survival is a lie, it was the exception.” And the stories of those who do not survive are no less important to share. Plus, I feel that in not giving up on his doomed mission to bury the boy, Saul has survived as a human being in some small way. Regardless of his death, he recovered his own humanity in an environment devoid of it.

While I can accept and appreciate the criticisms in the LaBuza article, I don’t agree with them. Yes, the Holocaust is a sensitive place to mine for movie material. It should not be an area we visit lightly, shallowly, or for attention. But it is also something we must keep alive in our cultural memory. And while I can see how the nebulous and peripheral references to the actual atrocities can be viewed as trivializing them, I feel that it speaks directly to Saul’s detachment from his unbearable reality. And that detachment is not being lauded in the film, as much as it is simply being acknowledged as a necessary part of the survival process. I agree, with the statement in one of the articles that no film can, or will, ever express the complete truth of the horror, but that doesn’t mean attempting to do so is disrespectful. We bear a responsibility, as the people who have come after this event, to remember the people who did not make it through. And I think any honest attempt to keep the story alive is inherently meritorious.

So I can't say that I have clear answers to those questions of survival and failure. I think the things we do to survive can often feel or look like failures. And despite what looks like a failure, something of ourselves can still survive. I think it's too complicated to actually answer. But hopefully, the important thing is to ask the questions. And to see that the questions apply to everyone, in any situation. And therefore, we're all the same and shouldn't judge others for how they survive, or how they seem to fail.


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