ALTROVE The Mission of Cinema and Son of Saul

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

When I first read about the premise for the movie Son of Saul , which has just won the Oscar for best foreign language film, I cringed. It is a film about a member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando – the “special squadron” of camp inmates who were forced to aid the Nazis in their extermination of the Jews of Europe by leading people to the gas chambers, removing their bodies after their murder, and transporting them to the crematoria. Instinctively, the film seemed to me to be an injudicious attempt to plumb the depths of the Shoah narrative in order to find a facet of the history that has yet to be represented on screen: a feature of the camp system so horribly cruel and inhuman that it could still illicit a strong emotive response from an audience that has, over the last few decades, built up a tolerance to the more standard narratives of the Holocaust genre. What could be gained by meditating on this most extreme of cases? How could the filmmakers presume to honestly represent a reality so horrific? I had my doubts.
However, in turning to Primo Levi’s considerations on the topic of the Sonderkommando I had to reconsider. In one of the most profound philosophical considerations of the Shoah – Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved (1986) – the great Jewish-Italian writer discusses the difficulty of facing this very topic:

This institution [of the Sonderkommando] represented an attempt to shift onto others – specifically, the victims – the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one’s mind: this is a temptation one must resist” (Levi, 53).

So, perhaps it is not only worthwhile to see this movie, but necessary. And yet, and yet… I still can’t surmount my skepticism about the very capacity of the cinematic medium – in all its indexical precision – to create a realistic representation of such an extreme situation, if that is the aesthetic the film is going for. I’ve read that the director has relied on the soundtrack to portray much of the surrounding environment of the camp, while the image track gives us a narrow view of what the protagonist has directly in front of him. This is an intriguing strategy, but still not enough to fully allay my fears about falsification or exploitation of a historical event, no matter how unintentional. And my trepidation is caused precisely by my appreciation for cinema and its power to tap into and shape our imaginations.

This predicament reminds me of a class I TA’d for in graduate school. The course was on the history and cinema of modern Italy, and it was co-taught by a historian and a film scholar. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but the one class session that exploded into outright contention was the one dealing with Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Life Is Beautiful . The class was taking place more than a decade after the film’s release, and yet the historian and the film scholar could find no common ground on it: the historian condemned the film unreservedly for all its historical inaccuracies and ridiculous plot, while the film scholar lauded the movie for its inventiveness and capacity to narrativize the Shoah in a new way for a new generation. This one film turned the normally mild-mannered professors into partisan defenders of their ideas of the very mission of history and cinema, and the appropriateness and location of any boundaries between historical fact and cinematic fiction. I can feel these two stances within myself with regard to Son of Saul, and until I see it, which I eventually will, I don’t know who will win out.

*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA).