There have been countless essays written about cinematic representations of the Holocaust; are the Academy Award winning depictions by Steven Spielberg or Roberto Benigni truly important? or just trite exploitation? Is it ever OK to make a fiction film about the awful events that happened in places like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka?
Son of Saul director, Laszlo Nemes, himself a film school graduate, has made a film that places him into this ongoing conversation, and sees his debut as, among other things, a critique of established popular representations. In an interview with The New York Times, Nemes reveals his antithetical approach “Since the end of the Second World War I’ve seen very clearly that many people more or less consider the Holocaust as a mythical story and approached it probably from a defensive mechanism, as a way to get away from it through survival stories. I don’t think Auschwitz and the extermination of the European Jews was about survival. It was about death. And how Europe killed itself, committed suicide.”
But Son of Saul, now an Oscar winner itself (Best Foreign Language Film 88th Academy Awards) has been met with its own share of criticism. Manohla Dargis for The New York Times called the film “Intellectually repellent”, Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot described it as being “grotesque and exploitative” and Stefan Grissemann in Film Comment similarly sees it as exploitation; writing “In its pursuit of controversy, Son of Saul plumbs unforeseeably new depths of revulsion.”
The film does, however, have a surprising but powerful supporter in Claude Lanzmann, director of the revered holocaust documentary, Shoah (1985). Lanzmann has criticised other films for dramatising the horrors of death camps, yet has given Son of Saul his approval, praising it as an “anti-Schindler’s List”
Son of Saul first played at Hyde Park Picture House as part of the Leeds International Film Festival last November, where it didn’t quite manage to rank in the audience top 10. Yet looking at Twitter, it definitely had its fair share of supporters in the audiences, and although I’m undecided on how I feel about the suspense plotline, I have to recommend it for Géza Röhrig’s central performance, the impressive stark sound design and for the arresting shallow focus cinematography by Mátyás Erdély.
Son of Saul screens daily from Friday 29th of April. The Sunday screening at 5pm will include an introduction by Dr Dominic Williams (University of Leeds), co-author of a recent book about the Sonderkommando as well as a post-film panel discussion with Prof. Griselda Pollock (University of Leeds), Prof. Sue Vice (University of Sheffield) and Gary Spicer (Stockport College).