I looked out on a perfect summer’s day, as the fields rolled by outside the window of a rickety train heading from Krakow to Oświęcim. I fell into conversation with a couple of Dutch lads and we speculated on which countries’ athletes would do well in the upcoming Barcelona Olympics if they had to compete in the costumes worn in the Opening Ceremony – I told them I didn’t fancy Holland’s chances in the sprints, you know, with the clogs and all. We bought some beer from the conductor’s stash – as you did then – and the time passed quickly.
There were maybe a dozen more tourists who made their way towards the gates, the chilling message “Arbeit Macht Frei” crowning them in wrought iron, as they had nearly 50 years earlier. The banter had already left our lips, but we were still talking, though a stillness, even a coldness, had started to slowly drive the air from our lungs. We found a guide, stared at the red brick buildings that went on as far as the eye could see – the word “camp” is really too small for what is more a town than anything else – and braced ourselves for what was to come. We said a few words as we looked at displays of teeth fillings, walking sticks, hair and the endless records that catalogued human beings turned into commodities.
The words stopped. And soon we stopped and looked at one another, pausing outside the low brick structures into which so many thousands were led for the showers that did not cleanse with water, but murdered with Zyklon B. We did not go in – we did not need to see the endgame we knew, the inevitable conclusion to the depravity we had seen over the previous hour or so. We walked back through the gates and the words slowly returned with each step towards the railway station.
The combination of the vast scale of the murders and the tiny details of its administration defeated language and, hence, thought. I had something of that feeling again, years later, when I read Primo Levi’s memoir of the camps, If This Is A Man. That masterpiece also crushes with its accounts of the life or death imperative of finding shoes to the sheer effort required to extinguish industrial volumes of human beings. Opening up a space in language, in imagination, in imagery to tell the story of the camps, is one of the great artistic challenges of the last 70 years.
László Nemes, a first time director, finds his space in the tight frame that gives us Saul’s face and, sometimes, what Saul can see – and nothing more, at least not in focus. The camera never lingers for long on anything other than Saul’s empty eyes, Géza Röhrig brilliantly, and with great subtlety, showing us disgust, disdain, fear, obsession, hope, selfishness and much, much more, even, eventually, reconciliation. It is an acting performance that deserves the very highest praise delivering a complete realisation of Nemes’s aesthetic decisions.
The film follows Saul’s quest to give a boy (whom he suspects is his son, but whom we suspect is more a symbol for an innocence utterly absent from his world) a funeral that may restore some humanity to a child murdered in the most depraved way imaginable. He seeks a rabbi to say Kaddish, perhaps to place religion in the role of a science that has foresaken its moral compass. He clings to this quest and to the boy as a revolt is plotted and executed pathetically, even the camp’s relatively privileged Sonderkommando, broken in mind and spirit as death suffuses every breath they take.
The director has cited Elem Klimov’s epic Come And See (which left the cinema audience as dumbstruck as Son of Saul when I saw it in the late 80s at the Scala) and that was my reference point too. As is the case with that Soviet masterpiece, there are times when you can’t look, but you can’t not look either. Watching the film becomes, like reading Primo Levi’s book, an act of bearing witness, an act rooted in duty, in honouring those whose stories are told.
I expect to gain a fuller appreciation of the movie on a second viewing, when the mosaic built up at the edges of the frames will complement the expressions of Saul, the film digging deeper into my mind. But I don’t need a repeat to recognise this film as important, as utterly relevant and, at this very moment in politics, critical to an understanding of the ultimate consequence of dehumanising human beings. It will be in my mind when I read newspaper headlines and hear the increasingly shrill demagoguery that passes for political discourse – you cannot blink it away.