10/40/70 - Son of Saul
In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks.
Craigen Z Oster
Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
This is the first moment that the film lets up on Saul, as he’s moved non-stop from the opening moments of the film. His face wears years of frustration and pain, and yet I can’t help but see him as a young man. He’s barely lived a life of his own, and yet he looks broken [but not aged] as he stares at a young boy struggling for air who has somehow survived the gas chamber in Auschwitz. In this moment, he looks like a man wracked with guilt and pain from being forced against his will to assist in the murder of his own people. But now having seen the whole film, his face takes on a whole new kind of guilt; that of a father who has essentially killed his son.
Up until this point in the film, we have mostly been on his back or shoulder, catching glimpses of the side of his face as he is forced along the conveyor belt of the concentration camp. It makes me want to vomit, seeing Saul realize what he has just done.
Yet another moment where the camera [and the characters in the frame] finally holds for more than a handful of seconds. Saul gazes into his own mind as the Nazi soldiers at the camp take roll call. The lens is focused on him, and yet there are at least eight others in the frame, doing exactly as he is. This stillness activated in my own thoughts and feelings the sense of what is going on in the minds and hearts of these people, without any use of dialogue. There is a weight to every body in this frame, despite everyone looking so gaunt and brutalized.
Reckoning with the Holocaust is something I feel most take for granted now, when the social issue du jour changes at the pace of hyper=speed. But this image drives a spear through my side, making me realize how little I’ve ever thought about, or even really considered at all, the pain of guilt that those who had to serve as Sonderkommandos in the camps. Every fucking day of the last days of your existence you had to sit with that, rotting your mind and likely your own soul, feeling helpless against the weight of not only the Nazi regime but your own conscience. Obviously these people were not responsible for their actions in any way whatsoever, but this moment, when I am forced to continually stare into the face of man who has killed his own flesh and blood, you can’t help but put yourself into his mind and realize the immense weight he is carrying. How much he must hate himself. How worthless, disgusting, and evil he must feel.
Light from the flames of burning, innocent bodies illuminates the center of the frame in a triangle created by the unison of Saul and the Sonderkommando whose face we see. It is a desperate image, as Saul pleads for the rabbi he has found to be spared so that he can give his son a proper burial. I’m tempted to feel like shit when I see this. And I likely should. People are being shot and immediately burned in the image. It is disgusting. But I also feel hope. The unison of these two bodies has created a perfect patch of light, of hope, of the possibility of salvation.
While this film is deeply depressing, this image makes me feel the presence of something indescribable. It’s whatever creates that feeling of hope in me. It is what creates the hope and drive in Saul to bring salvation to his deceased son. It is what makes the possibility of salvation exist in Saul’s mind in the first place. It is something other than man, something that allows Saul and those like him to persist despite the absolute certainty that he won’t make it out alive.