ON THIS DAY . . .
- . . . in 1881, historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle died in London at 85. "A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one," he once said.
- . . . in 1959 in Nyack, New York, after a luncheon of souffle,oysters, grapes and champagne, Carson McCullers put music on the phonograph and invited, Marilyn Monroe, then married to Arthur Miller, and Isak Dinesen to join her in dancing on the marble-topped dining room table.
- . . . in 1994, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in the murder of African-American civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, over 30 years after the crime occurred. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home on June 12, 1963, while his wife, Myrlie, and the couple's three small children were inside.
QUIET AND HARROWING FURY . . .
Earlier this week, I saw the Oscar-nominated (Best Foreign Language Film/Hungary), "Son of Saul," summed up on imbd.com this way: "In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son." The film won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
Needless to say, this movie was not easy to sit through, but it had won major awards, plus I had read several reviews saying that the power of the film was that it had finally blown open and virtually reinvented holocaust films.
Even the trailer for "Son of Saul" signals this new urgency and mournful honesty. (By the way, the film itself has no music until the end credits. The music featured in the trailer is from Act 3 of the opera King Arthur by Henry Purcell. The song is entitled, "What power art Thou" also known as "The Cold Song.")
As you will see immediately from the trailer, the focus of the film, in every sense, is on Saul Auslander played by actor and poet, Géza Röhrig. He appears in almost every shot, from the back of his head to his face which wears a permanent frown. All kinds of horrible things are happening around Saul, but we never see them. We only see shapes, out of focus, at the extreme fringes of the screen. As Saul moves around, the audience hears rather than sees. The film opens with an extraordinary single take as we follow Saul through what we will discover is Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he is a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who were forced to aid in disposing of the remains of the gas chamber victims. During the course of his duties, he discovers the body of a young boy. For reasons made clear in the movie, Saul decides to do whatever he can to secure a proper burial for the child, including a recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayers for the dead. All this takes place in a mere two days.
What struck me most about the film is that it is the complete antithesis to other pivotal holocaust films such as Schindler's List. About a decade ago, I read Selling the Holocaust by Tim Cole and my respect for "Schindler's List" dissipated mostly because the film was a Hollywood "Holocaust" in which, according to Cole:
". . .scenes of graphic violence are spread throughout what is ultimately a 'feel-good' movie. Not only are these scenes made more palatable by an ending in which the hero triumphs and the villain gets his just desserts, but they also show acts of violence committed in the main against nameless individuals rather than characters who we have in some way invested in emotionally. Most of those murdered in this filmic 'Holocaust' are mere faces who we view from the perpetrators perspective." [p.90]
"Son of Saul" is not a Hollywood holocaust film. The hero does not triumph, the villain does not get his just desserts and we come to care profoundly not only for Saul, but also for his dignity. By using judicious restraint, first-time director, László Nemes, in an astonishing debut, forces viewers to go deeper; indeed to meditate on one human's terrifying season in hell. It is a courageous film . . . and it will, perhaps, take courage to watch it.
BUT SHOULD WE WATCH IT? . .
"About what one cannot speak, one must remain silent."
PERHAPS, BUT WILL IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE? . . .
“That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical value of an assault by images. It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged? All this, with the understanding that moral indignation, like compassion, cannot dictate a course of action.”