[The following is a translation of Georges Didi-Huberman’s Sortir du Noir, a long, open letter to László Nemes on his film Son of Saul, published by Ēditions de Minuit in 2015.]

 

Paris, 24th August 2015

 

Dear László Nemes,

Your film, Son of Saul, is a monster. A necessary, coherent, beneficial, innocent monster. The result of an extraordinarily risky aesthetic and narrative wager. How could a film about the Behemoth1 that was the Nazi extermination machine in the enclosure of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 not be a monster compared to the stories we are used to seeing each week in theatres in the name of “fiction”? Is your film something other than fiction? Of course not. But it’s a fiction that’s as modestly as it is audaciously attuned to the very particular historic reality it deals with. Whence the ordeal of discovering it. During the screening in the dark of the theatre, I wished at times, not to close my eyes, but that all that you bring to light in this film returned to darkness, even if for a brief amount of time. That the film closed its own eyelids for a moment (which does happen sometimes). As though darkness could offer me, in the midst of this monstrosity, a space or a time to catch my breath, to breathe a little amid that which was taking my breath away from shot to shot. What an ordeal, indeed, is this bringing to light! What an ordeal is this flood of images and this hell of sounds tirelessly giving rhythm to your narrative! But what a necessary and fertile ordeal!

Like many others, I went into the dark of the theatre equipped with some preliminary information—an incomplete knowledge, of course; that is everyone’s lot—about the (historical) story that your (filmic) story deals with, namely the Nazi death machine and the role played by members of the Sonderkommando, special teams formed from interned Jews whose terrifying work is soberly described at the beginning of your film in a title card that defines them with the expression “Geheimnisträger”, “carriers of secret”. Your story (your fiction) gets out of the dark: it “carries” the secret itself, but in order to carry it into light. It is dedicated through and through to the story (to the reality) of the diabolical fate of the Sonderkommando members at Auschwitz-Birkenau: not a single shot in the film that isn’t backed up, that isn’t directly drawn from sources, from testimonies, to begin with the extraordinary secret manuscripts that you claim to have discovered in the special edition of the Shoah History Review published in 2001 under the title Voices Under the Ashes2.

Despite having gone through the same sources as you, I was left without a defence, without any protective knowledge, by the images and cries of your film. They grabbed me by the throat in many ways. Firstly, I must confess that it felt like seeing something of my oldest and most painful nightmares in front of me. There’s nothing personal in that: it’s the power of nightmares to reveal to us the structure of reality, and it’s the power of cinema to reveal to us the structure of nightmares which so often make up reality itself. I automatically think of the situations that made up the reality you narrate—and which survivors like Filip Müller and Primo Levi3 attest to—these situations without respite for anyone, and where all of life’s energy, its capacity for invention, cunning, decision, persistence, with its genius for seizing the most improbable opportunity, well, all this nevertheless led to a death sentence.

In an interview, you called Shoah “a black hole in our midst”. Did you find it necessary then to go back to the den of your nightmares to see what this hole, this darkness was made of? Like every good archaeologist, you carefully documented your nightmares. You then speak—and it’s perfectly consistent with your reading of the buried documents—of the four photographs of Birkenau’s Crematory V taken by Sonderkommando members in August 1944. You say that these photos “left a deep impression” on you because, you say, “they pose essential questions”. I quite agree with you, having tried to formulate some of these questions some fifteen years ago4.

A man of images such as you couldn’t have been insensitive to the power—but a fragile power, as it happens—of these photographs. I suppose that you too asked yourself this kind of question: how, in the whole horror of the situation (on one hand, corpses, barely removed by the Sonderkommando from the gas chamber, burning in open air pits, and on the other, naked women pushed towards death for the next mass gassing), in the whole urgency of the decision (to get ready to extract a visual evidence) and in the whole danger inherent in the operation of taking photos (how, indeed, under the mortal menace of being spotted by the SS, to take out a camera from one’s pocket, place it near the eye to frame something so diabolical?)—how, after this, to take care that all this was deposited as images on the surface of these four photographs that remain today, together on a minuscule contact sheet? A partial, incomplete, very poor deposit. But a priceless, overwhelming deposit. A visual deposit where the light and the shadow, the black and the white, the clean and the fuzzy attest directly to the situation of which these images appear to be the “survivors”.

Perhaps Shoah is, irreducibly, this “black hole in our midst”. But that, far from giving us a definitive answer, only opens up a whole series of unresolved questions. Firstly, the question—aesthetical and ethical, psychological and political—of knowing what to do before this “black hole”, with this “black hole”. What to do indeed? Let this “black hole” eat us away from the inside, silently, absolutely? Or try to return to it, look at it, that is to say, bring it by the light, take it out of the dark? We know the philosophical, even religious aptitude to which the first attitude lends itself: turns this “black hole” into a “Holy of Holies”, a time that’s as fantastical as it’s unapproachable, untouchable, unimaginable, impossible to represent. Sanctify the reign of darkness. This is what Theodor Adorno aimed at with his observation about the “ideal of darkness” (Ideal der Schwärze) as the privileged sign of an art deemed “radical” (radikale Kunst), from the Suprematist canvases of Malevich to the dark monochromes of Ad Reinhardt, not to mention, in cinema, the dark and silent shots of Guy Debord’s film Howlings in Favour of De Sade.

According to Adorno, this “ideal of darkness” offers itself as the possible response of visual arts to the “black holes” of Auschwitz and of the massacres that haven’t stopped since 1945: “To survive reality at its most extreme and grim, artworks that do not want to sell themselves as consolation must equate themselves with that reality. Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary colour is black. Much contemporary production is irrelevant because it takes no note of this and childishly delights in colour. The ideal of blackness with regard to content is one of the deepest impulses of abstraction.” Adorno concludes: “Along with the impoverishment of means entailed by the ideal of blackness, what is written, painted, and composed is also impoverished; the most advanced arts push this impoverishment to the brink of silence5 (am Rande des Verstummens).”

But you, dear László Nemes, chose neither radical darkness nor radical silence. Your film is terribly impure, loud and colourful. Everything there is in motion, in urgency, in transition from the indistinct to the distinct and back. The dialogue, the curses in every language, the mixed howls of executioners and victims, the exhausted breaths, all this creates a terrifying maelstrom of sounds. The gestures, too, meld into one another in a diabolical way, gestures of terror and of wilfulness together, gestures of submission and of resistance at once, gestures of selfishness and of empathy by turns… Finally, the hell that you show us is a colourful hell: there is the colour of those who have just died, the colour—as though long dead—of Saul’s face, the blood-red colour of the large cross painted on the backs of the Sonderkommando members, the grey colour of the smoke and of human ashes, in stark contrast to the green of the birch forest in this autumn of 1944. Not to mention the black colour of the coal for the ovens and, of course, of the doors that close.

So you have not forgotten black. But you have brought it out of its abstraction. As though to shine light—not “all light”, no, for light is never “whole”, except in the heaven of intangible truths—shine a light on the “black hole” that obsessed you: shine a light while looking at this “black hole”, while making it visually unfold. Now, I’m sure you know, that it was the case already with the black and white of the photos of 1944. When “Alex” hid himself in the shadows of the gas chamber to take out his camera and frame the bodies burning in the open air, as seen through the doorframe (fig. 1), he left us a double evidence: evidence of the darkness, of the shadow produced by the closed space of the execution—snatched for some seconds—of the sheltering of his own look, precisely in order to exercise his own right to see, with the help of the lens; but also an evidence of the light, namely the photographic act par excellence, to make visible all that which the Nazis wanted absolutely to make invisible and, therefore, incredible to the world’s eyes.

1. Anonymous (member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, probably Alberto Errera aka “Alex”), Cremation of Gassed Bodies in Open-Air Burning Pits, Before the Gas Chamber of Auschwitz’s Crematory V, August 1933. Oswiecim, State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau (negative no. 278).

It so happens that, in your fiction, you conceived—while modifying certain parameters of the known situation for your use—an episode of this type: it’s now possible for us to see, through the shot-reverse shot of the secret photographer in the twilight (fig. 2) and what he sees beyond the doorframe (fig. 3), the very stakes of this photographic act imagined as an act of resistance. Even if, in your conception, the wind has just swept the smoke from the burning bodies against the photographer, which has an effect of fuzzifying the image, of making it more or less a “failure” (while, anyway, the SS arrive and Saul hides the camera: so the images are lost).

2. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (the “photographer” in the shadows).

3. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (what the “photographer” sees).

Similarly, the urgency inherent in the “fuzzy” photograph of 1944 (fig. 4) finds its reply, or its aesthetic “response”, in the numerous urgent shots with which your film narrates the danger of the situation, for example when Saul leaves the darkness of the undressing room where the revolt has been declared, towards the exterior of the building where the revolt will take place (fig. 5).

4. Anonymous (member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, probably Alberto Errera aka “Alex”), Women Pushed Towards the Case Chamber of Auschwitz’s Crematory V, August 1933. Oswiecim, State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau (negative no. 283).

5. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (Saul leaves the crematory).

An image that comes out of the darkness is an image that surfaces from the shadows or obscurity to come meet us. It’s precisely what happens in the first shot of your film. Just after the opening title card has summarised the living conditions of the Sonderkommando— “The Sonderkommando members are separated from the rest of the camp. They are killed after some months of work”—the screen remains dark and silent for a few long seconds. Then comes a sound, the most inoffensive in the world: the sound of birds that chirp in some natural ambiance, a forest we suppose. It’s the ultimate sound of innocence and of the freedom of flight. It continues while the image comes out of the dark, while the light spreads over a green but completely fuzzy, indistinct landscape. Even so, we recognize two tree trunks on the left and a dark patch that moves indistinctly on the ground. The green of the clearing and of the vegetation in the background occupies the entire image.

Green: but a green without hope. A violent blow of the whistle rings out. In the fuzzy landscape appears a human silhouette, followed by two others, that approaches the camera with rapid footsteps (fig. 6). And all of a sudden, Saul is there, before us, fully there. His face in close-up: handsome, ruined, exhausted, affectless (fig. 7). I see the clarity of this face as a fleeting equilibrium between the too-close (which would be obscure, dark) and the too-far (in the indistinct greenery). Another face crosses it in this tight space: “Let’s go”. Orders are shouted in German. The departure is abrupt, immediate: the camera appears to be caught unawares, relegated behind Saul, who walks ahead. We see the large red cross painted on the back of his jacket. We hear, increasingly loudly, screams mingled with terror endured and imposed. We understand that the Sonderkommando teams must push dozens of families—their own, in one sense—towards the gas chambers. The nightmare has just begun. We have only seen, briefly, Saul’s inexpressive face. I’m thinking of this sentence by Primo Levi: “And we don’t just have no time to be afraid, but no place either6.”

6. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (First shot: the faraway).

7. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (First shot: the near).

An image that leaves the dark comes to meet us. It surfaces so that what we see in it can see us and hence touch us in some way. What are the ways of touching? They are perhaps innumerable: it ranges from caresses to scratches, or from kisses given to blows landed (passing through, among other possibilities, the cold handshake the embodiment of which are images that are satisfied being “observational”). How does one touch without hurting? How, on the other hand, does one touch without hypocrisy, that is to say, without being satisfied with scratching someone’s back? Your film, dear László Nemes, establishes a tactile relationship with the viewer, and that is a way of tirelessly addressing—I mean, with each passing shot—a question fundamental to the realism of the mise en scène. You took the risk of constructing a certain realism with respect to a historical reality that’s often labelled unimaginable. How did you do that? Couldn’t we say of aesthetic realism, for starters, what Walter Benjamin said of philosophical criticism itself? Criticism, he wrote in One Way Street, “is a matter of the right distance (Kritik ist eine Sache des rechten Abstands). It’s at home in a world where it’s perspectives and optics (Perspektiven und Prospekte) that count and where it’s still possible to adopt a point of view7 (Standpunkt)”

How did you do that? Firstly, it seems to me that you respected the photographic legacy of the four images of August 1944. In your fiction, we see a brief exchange between two Sonderkommando members who plan the insurrection: the first wants to get into action without any delay—for the team itself is on the verge of being liquidated by the SS—while the other responds firmly: “We take photos first.” As though, beyond the call for uprising unto death, the images must be able to reach the world of survivors someday. You say yourself, dear László Nemes, that in order to “touch emotions”, it was necessary for you to reject digital clarity, to come back to the photographic materiality of celluloid, to use a single lens (40mm) and settle for a narrow aspect ratio (the opposite of the usual “widescreen”): “With the cinematographer Mátyás Erdély […] we wanted to use 35mm film and a photochemical process at every stage of the film. It was the only way to preserve an instability in the images and to film this world in an organic manner. The challenge was to touch the viewer’s emotions—something that digital doesn’t allow. All this called for a diffuse lighting, as simple as possible, [and] required us to film with the same lens, 40mm, in a narrow aspect ratio, and not widescreen which diverts attention, and always at the character’s height, around him8.”

That’s how Son of Saul ends up visually challenging the very realism its mise en scène has meticulously prepared. As we see in the first shot of the film (fig. 6-7), it has to do with focal length, and so with the depth of field. Now, the question is phenomenological even before having to assert itself as an aesthetic choice: who could claim to see, from a human height and from a human distance, an extermination camp in a wide shot, a shot where everything would be clear? Only an SS man posted on a watchtower could claim to have such a depth of visual field, at a height that allows him to see nothing humanly. I remember that it was with this idea that a vile scene of Schindler’s List was constructed: an SS officer, like Cecil B. DeMille on his film set, observes the camp panoramically from the height of his love nest and shoots some prisoners for fun with a sniper rifle. But it’s something else entirely at Birkenau, and you set off from the obvious fact that, in a space of such obsidian horror, the only possible gaze is a gaze of short distance and short duration: a gaze obliged to cross death in passing, then to quickly lower the eyes towards the ground.

The image that leaves the dark is characterized by its own tactile limits: when they do take a clear shape, their density—the depth of field—is negligible. The zone of clarity is like a blade: it’s a slice of the visible space, but its effective interval, its wingspan, is extremely thin. The horror is cutting indeed. But it is also indistinct all around, like these screams we hear and these bodies—distraught with pain or already dead—that we see fuzzily. Also indistinct is the sense of permanent urgency, the compulsion to constantly run towards something else. They are fuzzy images, like the images of 1944—which they don’t try to imitate however—because they are images that are never “on firm ground”, always in movement, never resting for more than some seconds on what is to be seen, because it’s forbidden, or because there’s an obstacle in the way, or because there’s a new danger to dodge.

The image leaves the dark: it’s hence a panic-image. The fuzziness here is not a sign of inattention, a failure of observation, or even a simple refusal to see things head-on: it’s a visual channel of fear. The camera movements in Son of Saul seem to have been conceived to follow fear in its course, rejecting the aesthetics of painting, of the static shot. With this film, we aren’t given a “picture of the situation” at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. The film is satisfied—but that’s considerable—with following the activities, the fear and the mad decision of a single character. Now, fear distorts distances such that the relation between clear and fuzzy appears to affect, as in a perceptual ailment, the relation between near and far. For example, two characters seen from afar (but clearly) become fuzzy when Saul’s back enters the field of view, and seem to recede even though the camera is physically approaching them. A corpse dragged by Saul—whose face is seen from up close—suddenly seems extraordinarily faraway, smaller than in reality (fig. 8). The panic-image hence barely makes it out of the dark.

8. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (Saul drags a corpse in the crematory).

I still haven’t said anything, dear László Nemes, about the central argument on which your entire story unfolds. Son of Saul tells the story of a man who wants, in some way, to save a child—but it’s a dead child. His entire being is outraged when he hears the SS doctor order, standing before the corpse: “Open him up”. Getting out of the dark would then mean for Saul to attempt to save the dead child from his anatomical dismemberment, to spare him the atrocious den of the crematory and the anonymous dispersion of his ashes in the Vistula. Getting out of the dark would here mean resisting the inexistence of the dead: whence the demand, so that the dead child exists, for a ritual, for a suitable prayer, for a rabbi and, especially, for a dignified burial. Taking the dead child out of the dark: such is the paradox, since so much will be attempted in order to give him a piece of land to rest in. But there will neither be a piece of land to rest in nor the kaddish, or the rabbi, at the end. We won’t even know the child’s name.

Getting out of the dark becomes, for Saul’s character, the expression of a decision that’s insane for a Sonderkommando member: not just obliged to drag countless corpses (fig. 8), but also the desire to carry one single dead child. To carry a dead child on his shoulders (fig. 9) while searching relentlessly for a possible site for his burial. This is where Saul’s allegory takes off—the singular narrative status of his improbable fiction. Saul now registers as a character in the sense of the oldest tales. It’s impossible not to think of those of Franz Kafka or László Krasznahorkai. The narrative is all the more powerful (in that it tells us about a stubborn desire for humanity) because it’s implausible (looking for a dead child among thousands that the crematories are destroying day and night, carrying a dead child on his shoulders when everyone around him is collapsing to death).

9. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (Saul carries a dead child in the camp).

Saul seemed to me, in your story, to be a man who breaks away. From himself as from others. He breaks away from himself because he’s not afraid of anything anymore whereas he was once afraid of everything; because his will goes against the course of the world whereas he submitted himself earlier to the rule of death; the adamant hero for a mad cause who was once the passive puppet of others (SS officers, kapos, the Oberkapo, the partisans themselves, who use him, subjugate him, beat him up). Is that why you justify your choice of Géza Röhrig—who isn’t a professional actor but a Hungarian poet living in the USA—by saying that “everything is moving and movement with him, on his face and on his body: it’s impossible to give him an age, he’s both young and old, but he’s also handsome and ugly, banal and remarkable, deep and impassive, very quick and very slow9”? Saul breaks away from himself also because his basic humanity is willing to deny itself to attain his goal: that’s how he drives the “renegade” rabbi, whom he has just saved from drowning, to death; that’s how he’s willing to despicably blackmail a Sonderkommando member (threatening him with denunciation) who reproaches him saying: “You’re playing with our lives.”

Indeed, Saul doesn’t hesitate playing with others’ lives—but with his own most of all—for this apparently absurd mission: save a dead child. It’s in this that he breaks away, not just from himself, but from everyone else around him. His comrades in misfortune constantly ask him: “What the hell are you doing?”, “’Where are you going?”. And he constantly breaks strict guidelines, goes from one team to another, crosses boundaries in a territory where boundaries are impassable. You say, in order to mark his individuality: “There are many ways of resisting10.” His comrades want to blow up a crematory, he wants to simply bury a dead child he says is his son—an affirmation that everything else makes us doubt. To be sure, it’s another way of revolting against the death factory of Birkenau. And it’s a gesture of the greatest fearlessness since, fundamentally, everyone is against him in this mission no one understands.

Your film, dear László Nemes, narrates what can happen beyond even despair, when this beyond, this hereafter has nothing to do with some “new hope”. Despair: Saul, like all the other Sonderkommando members, cannot escape what Primo Levi once called “the pinnacle of perfidy and hate [of the Nazis]: it was up to the Jews to put Jews into the ovens, it had to be demonstrated that the Jews, a sub-breed, sub-humans, gave in to all humiliations, went so far as to destroy themselves11”. Despair: forced to drag countless corpses of one’s coreligionists as Stücke, simple “pieces” or “lumps” of dead meat, as the SS called them (fig. 8). The hereafter or, better, the bifurcation of despair? To take a dead child in your hands, tenderly, to wrap it in a piece of rag and carry it on your shoulders everywhere you can, until this package gets lost in the river in a supremely despairing way (fig 9-11).

The hereafter or the bifurcation of resistance? Saul will substitute for a combat-based resistance directed towards the future (the plan to revolt and dynamite the crematory) a respect-based resistance directed towards the past (bury the body of a child like tradition demands). He’ll prefer over the society of those living, now and in the future, the genealogy of those dead, now and in the past. He’ll prefer over battle of wills (power games, strategies, winners and losers of a community in which everyone’s but “shipwrecked”) the authority of rituals (the rabbi, the kaddish, the burial by the book). Saul will carry out the missions prescribed by his comrades as scrupulously as possible, but always with his unsayable ulterior motive. But his goal is clear: “I must find a rabbi”. A strange political gesture if there ever was one. But it’s all he can answer when Abraham, his comrade, explains the “plan” for the Sonderkommando’s armed insurrection against the SS. And when Abraham tells him bitterly: “We’re going to die because of you two.”, Saul simply answers: “We are already dead.”

Who is Saul then to affirm: “We are already dead”? Who’s the one who dares to speak that way, speak from beyond death? Is he the absolutely desperate one? Not really, since Saul, having said it, doesn’t collapse. On the contrary, his will to “save the dead child” is only revived, reinforced, delivered as it were. Are these the words of a madman, as would confirm a logician or a linguist alerted by the nonsense of the impossible proposition “We are already dead”? We indeed know that the work forced on them made some of the Sonderkommando members go mad, even commit suicide. Saul’s story, as you narrate it, dear László Nemes, seems to unfold according to a structure of pure madness: the madness of wanting to “save a dead child”; the madness of wanting to take the time for a funerary ritual while everything around is pressing; the madness of wanting to find a burial site within a space as totalitarian and all-surveyed, a space where all the dead, countless in number, are collectively reduced to ashes and smoke.

But seeing your film, I was rather seized by a sort of inverse impression: I sensed, in fact, to what point Saul’s madness—seen from the common sense perspective of the situation he’s in, seen from the perspective of his comrades as well as the viewer of the film—had the structure of a tale: a structure of mysterious purpose that’s, at heart, very literary. Which clearly rules out the kind of realism inherent to this film that’s outside of all naturalism and desire for exact “reconstitution”. Saul hence seemed to be somewhere between a Thomas the Obscure and a Last Man, somewhere between The Work of Fire and Death Sentence: if I evoke Maurice Blanchot, it’s also because, in his view, a “work” of fiction exists only beyond this “space of death” at once possible and transformed12. In this regard, Saul’s wanderings in the hell of Birkenau camp to take a single dead child out of the dark, these journeys that are at once immense and narrow called to my mind the gesture of Orpheus traveling into the mythological underworld to save Eurydice, as Blanchot so well described it: “When Orpheus descends towards Euridice, art is the power by which the night opens13.” To create a work would then be to enter the space of death, but in order that the night opens—and not in order to let it close on us. Such would be the way, poetic par excellence, to “get out of the dark”.

Like Orpheus, Saul is confronted with the space of death. Like Orpheus, he makes the night open by vowing all his life to bring a single loved one out of the dark. Like Orpheus, he will fail in his nevertheless miraculous gesture. We could say of Saul’s story that it welds—and such is its greatest narrative power, but also its relentless cruelty—an element of allegorical tales, of magical and immemorial legends, with an element of moral pain and disillusionment that we could call typically modern (in the sense that Adorno described it in his diagnosis on art and the life of the mind after Auschwitz). What then is this story at the forefront of which lies ritual duty, what then is this relentless quest for a rabbi if not a theme from a Hasidic tale14? Isn’t there always a rabbi in Hasidic tales to conduct redeeming rituals and miraculously bring people back from death?

It’s striking that Saul, in this story, is at once a condemned man (as a prisoner in Birkenau and, even more, as the best kept “secret carrier” of the Reich) and a man who seems to constantly escape this condemnation: he survives despite everything. He is unable to die, even when he takes the most radical decision in that direction (when he undresses with the other Jews being thrown into the open fire). He’s the eternal surviving prisoner: a miraculous being, as a consequence. Or a legendary being, a deeply literary being. His continuous bifurcation hence has to do with the structure of a narrative secretly organized like a magical tale. The rules of the camp allow no escape hatch, everyone knows that. But even so, how does he manage to escape, not to flee but to escape inside, like someone who goes directly into the eye of the cyclone and miraculously finds a space there to survive? And it’s from the paradoxical calm of this cyclonic eye, dear László Nemes, that you conceived the shots—improbable from the point of view of a realist narration since they’re too long for the SS or the kapo—in which we see Saul stand still and look at the world around him calmly, melancholically.

But, in this story, miracles—managing to stay alive, managing to keep the body of the child intact, managing to even smuggle it out of the camp—end badly. Miracles here are themselves condemned to death. Where there are the “three wishes” or “three boxes” in magical tales, strung out here are “three disappointments” or “three deaths”: a cruel tale. The story seems to nonetheless begin with a miracle: a child has survived gassing, he’s still breathing. But the miracle dies out within seconds in the calm, horrible gesture of the doctor placing his hand on the child’s face to kill him. Moreover, Saul’s story seems to list the miracles by which he manages to find a rabbi, then another, then yet another: but the first one refuses to bury the child owing to realism, and the second is soon killed. As for the third, he is a silent rabbi: is it because, we wonder, he despairs of God faced with such an abandonment of the Jewish people? Not even that: it’s simply that he’s a liar, a fake rabbi, a man who knows nothing of the Law, the Text, and even the most basic prayer.

So you placed yourself, dear László Nemes, along with your cowriter Clara Royer, in the Franz Kafka school in which everything bifurcates all the time, but only to veer off into the worse. You have done with Hasidic tales of miraculous rabbis what Kafka did, so cruelly, with pagan mythology, the stories of Sirens or of Prometheus, for example15: you have drawn them towards failure and, worse, towards a suspicion of lie. Why, firstly, does Saul call this child “his child”? “I must take care of my son”, he tells his comrade Abraham. “You don’t have a son”, replies the latter. The other inmates of the Sonderkommando call him a “bastard” and even “son of a bitch” because he doesn’t hesitate to lie, to conspire, to betray in order to complete his unreasonable mission. For the “son of a bitch” is adamant about imagining a son for himself. But why?

The final sequences of the film help us understand better. Saul takes part in the Sonderkommando uprising, though without fighting. He only looks to flee with “his son”—the funeral package on his shoulder (fig. 10)—and “his rabbi” beside him. He manages to enter the forest in a mad dash. He looks for a suitable spot to bury the child. He hesitates, he must give up once more. The screams of the pursuers make him change directions. He finds a piece of land near the river. Having placed his burden on the ground, in a final gesture of tenderness, he removes his jacket and folds it to make a cushion for the head of the child, still wrapped in the rag. He digs the earth desperately with a simple piece of dead wood. He orders “his rabbi” to finally recite the long-awaited kaddish. The man is silent: he doesn’t know it. He starts frenetically digging too, at least. But he flees almost instantly towards the river, like other escaped prisoners emerging from the forest.

10. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (Saul carries the dead child into the forest).

11. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (The body of the dead child in the river).

There’s Saul, yet again, alone with “his son” on the shoulder. His nightmare—and ours—hence continues. Saul jumps into the river, following the other fugitives. He doesn’t know to swim, or is at the verge of total exhaustion. Despite himself, he releases his package, his treasure. The package floats away with the current, almost drowning (fig. 11). Faced with this image, we suddenly think of an atrocious, inverted version of the foundational narrative of Jewish history, the story of Moses: a dead child that drowns in place of a living child saved from the river; real, historic death of an entire people in place of the biblical, mythical birth of the same people. The child disappears in the water. Saul himself is drowning. He’ll be saved at the last moment by the “first rabbi”—like how he himself had saved the “second rabbi” from drowning in the Vistula—and this is the only moment in this story where a rabbi performs his little miracle.

Everyone flees and hides in the forest. They find refuge—which they already know to be fragile, provisional—in a cabin in the woods. Saul is there, sitting on the ground, lost in thought. He has lost everything: his object of mourning as well as his reason to love. He sees, without really seeing, the door in front of him. And that’s when a young boy emerges softly and stares at him calmly. Who is he? The dead child back from the dead? An angel? Saul is stunned, then grateful, to the point of allowing the only smile of the film grace his face (fig. 12). But as the logic of the story demands, this miracle is soon followed by its refutation. The Polish child has unwittingly guided the SS towards the refuge of the fugitives. And this is the last image of the film: while we hear machine guns rattling in the cabin, we see the child—this bearer of life, this bearer of death—run gently into the intense green of Polish forests (fig. 13).

12. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (Saul’s smile).

13. László Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015. Image from the film (The child runs away).

Dear László Nemes, here I am finally with the strange impression that, with your considerable documentary effort, you have made a film that’s not a historical reconstitution of the Sonderkommando at Birkenau, but a veritable filmic tale deriving its logic from literary traditions at once very old and very modern. Could it be that you’ve invented the genre of “documentary tale” in cinema, reuniting in doing so two of the major paradigms that preoccupied Walter Benjamin in his profound reflection on images and history? On one hand, it’s striking that Benjamin talked of “the explosion of the novel”—in Marcel Proust, James Joyce or Alfred Döblin—through the process of a montage of documentary nature: “The principle of montage explodes the novel on both structural and stylistic fronts, opening up new, very epic possibilities, especially on the formal level. The material of montage is actually not at all arbitrary. Real montage is based on the document (Echte Montage beruht auf dem Dokument). […] In its best moments, film tries to familiarize us with it. Here, for the first time, [authenticity] has been placed at the service of epic literature16.”

But, on the other hand, we know how vehemently Benjamin could defend the outmoded necessity for the survival of tales: “the art of storytelling is getting lost. It’s increasingly rare to encounter people who can tell a tale properly [using] the ability to exchange experiences17 (Erfahrungen auszutauschen).” How does one exchange or convey an experience today when the art of storytelling seems lost in the limbo of times past, and when the novel seems to have taken over its place completely? Tales elude both novelistic narration and journalistic information. It’s because it comes from very, very far: “It resembles seeds of grain locked up hermetically for millennia in the chambers of the pyramids, and which have preserved their germinative power to this day18.” But why don’t we see this germinative power anymore? Why have tales vanished from our lives? Benjamin gives an anthropological answer: “It’s because death has a different face now19 (muß das Gesicht des Todes ein anderes geworden sein).”

And why is that so? Because people—be it in the bourgeois comfort or in the industrialization of our lives; Benjamin had no idea in 1936 of what the Nazis were to set up as “death factories”—aren’t capable anymore of seeing themselves die. “Now, it’s only at the moment of death that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom but, above all, the life he has lived, that is to say the stuff that stories are made of, assumes a communicable form. Just as he internally sees a series of images at the end of his life —visions of himself in which he meets himself without being aware of it—in his expressions and looks emerges the unforgettable, which imparts to everything he’s ever touched the authority that graces, in the eyes of those living around him, even the poorest wretch at the moment of his death. It’s this authority that’s at the source of a tale20.”

Son of Saul tells us something essential about this authority of the dying man. Saul is himself the dying man, the perpetual dying man. His authority consists of conveying an experience through a desperate (because solitary) genealogical quest. At any rate, it’s not a question of knowing whether the “son of Saul” is really his son or not. It’s a question of understanding his will—his idée fixe, his madness even—as a dying man’s gesture par excellence: a gesture consisting of inventing a son, of affirming a line of genealogical transmission at any cost, even if it’s reduced to the few words of a funerary prayer. There are fantasies and tales in which a child is killed. There are horrible situations in which a child dies. The entire authority of Saul—and, hence, of this story, of this film—derives from the fact that he creates from scratch, against the flow of the world and his cruelty, a situation in which a child exists, even if it’s already dead. So that we, ourselves, leave the darkness of this atrocious story, of this “black hole” of history.

 

Footnotes:

1 Very early, Nazism was compared to the symmetric biblical monster of Leviathan. Cf. F. Neumann, Behemoth. Structure and Practice of National Socialism.

2 Shoah History Review no. 171, 2001 (“Voices under the ashes. Manuscripts of the Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz-Birkenau”).

3 F. Müller, Three Years in a Gas Chamber at Auschwitz (1979). P. Levi, The Shipwrecked and the Survivors. Forty Years After Auschwitz (1986).

4 G. Didi-Huberman, Images Despite Everything. Since the publication of this book, the maker of the photographs, known only through the nickname “Alex”, as reported by the rare survivors, was in all probability identified: it might be Alberto Errera, born on 15th January 1913 in Larissa. He was an active member of the Greek Resistance. Arrested on the night of 24th March 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 9th April and selected for the Sonderkommando of Birkenau’s Crematory V as a “heater” (Heizer) to work at the ovens. He played a decisive role in the planning of the prisoners’ uprising.

5 T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1959-69), [Translator’s note: Robert Hullot-Kentor’s translation].

6 P. Levi, If This Is a Man (1947).

7 W. Benjamin One-Way Street (1928)

8 A. de Baecque, “Interview with László Nemes”, press release.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 P. Levi, The Shipwrecked and the Survivors.

12 M. Blanchot, The Space of Literature (1955)

13 Ibid.

14 M. Buber, Hasidic Tales (1949)

15 F. Kafka, “The Silence of the Sirens” (1917), “The Vulture” (1920).

16 W. Benjamin “The Crisis of the Novel: On Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1930)

17 W. Benjamin “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” (1936) [Translator’s note: Modified version of the translation by Harry Zohn]

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.