BERLIN – When it opens here March 10, the newly anointed Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, “Son of Saul,” will face a German public that is ambivalent about the subject of the Holocaust, to say the least.
Recent surveys show that many Germans have had enough of Holocaust talk: In one poll of 1,000 Germans, some 58 percent said the past should be consigned to history. Yet the new, annotated “Mein Kampf” is flying off the shelves and is currently ranked second on German bestseller lists.
The fact is, Germany will likely never stop grappling with the Holocaust. For this chapter of German history, there is no such thing as the coveted “Schlussstrich,” German for “the last word.”
However, 71 years after the end of World War II, a new approach to opening the conversation is needed, and “Son of Saul” may well be it.
Hungarian director László Nemes places the audience on the shoulder of a death camp inmate, turning viewers into virtual witnesses
Rather than showing us the Holocaust from a comfortable distance, Hungarian director László Nemes places the audience on the shoulder of a death camp inmate, turning viewers into virtual witnesses when eye witnesses are becoming scarce.
The audience is not meant to grasp the breadth of human depravity and suffering. And that’s as it should be, according to lead actor Géza Röhrig.
The film takes viewers “into that taboo zone that no one wants to enter,” the Hungarian-born actor said at a recent preview screening in Berlin. It’s “an experience, a personal journey. We wanted deliver a different sort of punch.”
Most Holocaust films hold a mirror up to Germans. But rather than making them flinch, the movies often make it easier for Germans to cope by simplifying history – you’re either a perpetrator, a victim or a rescuer – said Tobias Ebbrecht-Hartmann, a lecturer on film and German studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“It is all important in order to confirm to the German public an understanding of the Holocaust which doesn’t hurt,” Ebbrecht-Hartmann said. “But I like those films which still keep us in the situation of feeling uncomfortable.”
“Son of Saul” certainly does this. There’s nothing black and white about the main character, Saul Ausländer. Saul embodies all three aspects to some degree: victim, perpetrator and rescuer. As a member of the infamous Sonderkommando, a forced accomplice in the Auschwitz killing process, Saul is the personification of the “grey zone” of which Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote – the area of ambiguous morality.
“We hated [the Sonderkommando] more than we hated the Germans,” Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski told some 700 people at a special screening in Berlin’s Delphi Theater. “Because they were from my people… and they lent a hand in the killing process.”
Years later Turski realized that “their suffering was much greater, much deeper, much more profound than my suffering.”
In the film, Saul completes his Sonderkommando tasks – seeing his fellow Jews to their death and cleaning up afterward – like an automaton. We see what he sees, hear what he hears. We go only as far as gas chamber door: Nemes does not take us beyond the point from which there was no return.
But Nemes does show us the transformation of Saul, who becomes obsessed with restoring dignity to one dead boy. Ultimately, the corpse, wrapped in a makeshift shroud, “witnesses” everything: From the gas chamber to the Sonderkommando uprising of October 7, 1944 to an attempted escape.
In an almost Christian twist, the dead child seems to be Saul’s cross to bear, and his redemption.
The film has gripped critics, since it won the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes last year to its Oscar win on February 29. Saul himself is labeled as less human than a marionette – he moves like “a piece of wood,” wrote Wenke Husmann, reviewing the film for Die Zeit in May. “They robbed Saul of his humanity, before his certain death.”
Nemes, with his mix of blurry images and acute sound, achieved something both “enormously radical” and “delicate,” wrote Hannes Stein in Germany’s Jewish weekly, Juedische Allgemeine, after the film won the Golden Globe in January.
“Remembrance of the Holocaust has become a rote act performed on Memorial Day,” lamented critic Hanns-Georg Rodek in “Die Welt.” But “Son of Saul” shows that, “if we believed that Shoah themes have been exhausted 70 years after, that is far from the truth.”
Certainly, German media does not avoid the subject of the Holocaust.
“You cannot open a newspaper any day in Germany, cannot see a week’s television without finding somewhere a reference to the past and how it affects the present,” said Stephan Vopel, the Bertelsmann Foundation’s expert on German-Jewish and German-Israeli relations.
‘Younger people do not want to be confronted so much with the past – because it is painful’
But many Germans prefer to look away, he said. The 2015 study Vopel commissioned showed that 58 percent of Germans preferred to put the Holocaust behind them. Especially “younger people do not want to be confronted so much with the past. And I think it is understandable – because it is painful.”
Even when Germans do confront the Holocaust, they do it just to make themselves look good, said enfant terrible Tuvia Tenenbom, the Israeli-American author who raked Germans over the coals in his 2011 book, “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.”
“In modern-day Germany, it’s very easy to talk about the Holocaust, make movies about the Holocaust and Jews,” Tenenbom said. “And some of them do yiddishkeit and sing. It’s very romantic.”
“But if it had anything to do with remorse over what their grandparents and parents did, if it was the real thing, they would not be so obsessed with Israel in a negative way,” said Tenenbom. (In the Bertelsmann Foundation report, a third of the polled Germans equated Israeli policies to the Palestinians with Nazi policies towards Jews.)
Germany has gone through several phases in the process conveyed by the multi-syllabic German term, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “confrontation with its past.” And media has played a major role.
In the 1960s, with the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, many Germans were confronted for the first with the crimes committed by “ordinary Germans” – not just the upper Nazi echelons.
In 1979, the US-made TV mini-series “Holocaust,” whose cast included Meryl Streep and James Woods, was seen in millions of German homes, sparking further soul-searching and educational programs.
When “Schindler’s List” arrived in 1993, entire schools went to the movies, recalled Ebbrecht-Hartmann, who grew up outside Dortmund. “My first memories are going with my family on a winter holiday and seeing it, and then seeing it for a second time with our whole class and school.”
“I felt it was a turning point, in that the [audience] could see themselves as the ‘good Germans,’” he said. And even though he found the story pat, he is “still crying at the end” every time he shows it to students. “There must be an emotive mechanism: You feel relieved.”
Which is exactly what “Son of Saul” tries to avoid.
“Crying is cathartic,” as Röhrig puts it. The idea is not to let audiences off easy.
“People say there is a kind of fatigue here,” Röhrig told the Berlin audience. “I really hope German society as a whole will give a chance to this movie and not ignore it.”
One message of “Son of Saul” is that the responsibility to remember does not die with the last of the survivors.
In many ways, the film, told from its extremely personal perspective, is an answer to the “plea, the cry: ‘Don’t let my story be forgotten,’” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. “Son of Saul” received the first of the Claims Conference’s $50,000 grants for Holocaust art.
In “Son of Saul,” the viewer is unable to be all-knowing and see everything.
‘We do not have this godlike position, where we see all from a safe ground’
“We do not have this godlike position, where we see all from a safe ground,” said Ebbrecht-Hartmann. “We are now in the position where we can start to engage in [Primo Levi’s] moral grey zone, without being in danger of completely blurring the distinction between perpetrator and victim.”
For indeed Saul is a victim, despite being forced to comply in murder.
“Most people entertain themselves with the issue of complicity [in the genocide] and I find the whole topic obscene,” Röhrig said in an interview. “No one earned the right to label the people who have been through this… Every attempt to shift the burden of guilt towards the victims has to be rejected.
“To me, [Saul] is God’s last witness. If I were God forbid in that situation, I would want to be Saul.”
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.