Films about the holocaust face a dilemma – the demands of the subject matter are not necessarily compatible with the semantics of cinema. The subject requires an absolute desire to portray truth, for us to bear witness. But the structure of a two hour movie calls for a narrative arc, dramatic tension, some fudging of the truth for the sake of the story. In addressing this dilemma film-makers are forced to be inventive in their approach. This can involve telling a story around the death camps but not located in them (Schindler’s List), adding a fictional character to be our representative (The Boy is Striped Pyjamas), even attempting (largely unsuccessfully) dark comedy (Life is Beautiful), or the courtroom approach (lots of them).
A cinematic problem of portraying the heart of darkness, life in Auschwitz itself, is that the camp was designed to strip any light and shade from the daily lives of the inmates. The unrelenting grimness of lie there was part of the industrial process designed to strip people of their humanity. Hope, romance, action, drama – all the staples of a movie plot were deliberately removed from the inmate’s experience because these are emotions that make us human, and the aim is to explicitly remove any such hooks. Making a film from this perspective gets to the heart of the dilemma – how to be truthful and yet also make a film that engages. László Nemes’s film doesn’t try to shy away from this central tension. The technique faces it full on by taking the viewer directly into the camp. The camera is rarely two foot from Géza Röhrig’s Saul, often following behind his shoulder. This gives it an immersive game, found footage quality, we are placed directly in the action.
Saul is one of the Sonderkommando, the inmates who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria. Kept apart from the other inmates, the Sonderkommando themselves were executed after a few months and replaced. Saul operates quietly, efficiently, with the bowed head, don’t draw attention to yourself stance that Primo Levi describes in If This Is A Man. The storyline as it is involves a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber, and then dies. Saul believes him to be his son, and wants to give him a proper burial, and not be subject to autopsy. This plot device allows us to follow Saul through different parts of the camp, as he seeks a rabbi and a means of burial.
The plot makes some overtures about the need to find some act of morality in an immoral place. But it is not really the focus of the movie. Intriguingly the focus is the out of focus action. While the camera is locked on the quiet pathos in Saul’s face, the detail is in the bokeh behind him. Blurred figures haul bodies, shoot inmates, strip possessions. It seems to say that even a film that wants to face the subject directly is forced to gaze indirectly.