Monday, May 9, 2016

Sacrificing the Living for the Dead

“Son of Saul,” film directed by Laszlo Jeles Nemes, 2015

This Hungarian film, which won the 2015 Oscar for best foreign film, is about events during the Sonderkommando rebellion in the Auschwitz / Birkenau camp.  Sonderkommandos (‘special unit’ in German) were essentially Jewish ‘trustees’ who worked in the death camps.  On October 7, 1944, they learned they were to be eliminated and they revolted with others, burning part of a crematoria and killing and wounding Nazi guards.  The revolt was eventually crushed and most Sonderkommandos killed with shots to the back of their heads.  Rebellions also took place in Treblinka and Sobibor.  (The 650 page academic book “Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis,” details the history of Jewish rebellions during WWII.) 

Crematoria at Birkenau
The lead actor who played Saul Auslander (‘outsider’), Reza Rohrig, was a poet and semi-actor who visited Auschwitz frequently while studying in Poland.  He became an orthodox Jew and that story is at the heart of this one – oddly enough.  Many have dismissed the story as inessential to the film, but I think it is.  The film is shot in Cinema Verite style from the sole viewpoint of Auslander, a quiet, mouse-like man who becomes intent on burying a Jewish boy who he claims is his son.  This boy somehow survived the gas chamber, then was strangled by a Nazi doctor.  Auslander cradles the dead boy in his arms repeatedly, reminiscent of a pieta, and hides him in his bunk. 

Auslander attempts to hold an ‘orthodox’ Jewish funeral, but doesn’t really understand how to do it.  For a burial, you do not need rabbi and any Jew can recite the Kaddish.  Auslander thinks a rabbi is necessary. 10 people are supposedly needed instead.  He is told these things by the rebellious, probably Communist prisoners, but he doesn't listen.  In addition, bodies need to be buried in 24 hours, but away from bad places like Auschwitz.  Yet Auslander at one point is digging a plot in the middle of the camp under some stairs.  This Sondercommando understands none of this.  He spends the film looking for a rabbi, to the detriment of the rebellion and almost his own survival.  And when he finds one, the man is a liar who was just trying to survive.

What is tremendous about the film is the way it shows the camp – a hellish warren of death rooms in which Auslander never quite makes eye–contact with the arriving transports of Hungarian Jews.  We do not directly see the piles of bodies in the crematoria or any of the other horrors, but only at the edges of Auslander’s consciousness, out of focus.  This is not Spielberg’s version of Hollywood panoramas and clear-eyed witnessing, but closer to what it must have been like to attempt to survive in these conditions.  The whole day and a half of the film is chaotic and similar to how Altman handles film – voices and languages float in and out, sounds happen, people appear and disappear, events flow.  It is almost as if there is one tracking shot following Auslander around the camp and its various chambers of horrors. 

Hell Is On Earth
The trustees talk to the arriving Jews entering the dressing rooms like they are entering a normal delousing or sanitation station, to be followed by a meal of hot soup.  They then drag the dead from the gas chambers to the crematoria, scrub the bloody floors, take out the clothing, take the travel bags of the dead to a large warehouse, shovel ashes into the lake.  At some point the Nazis begin to panic, as they cannot kill quickly enough, and so bypass the gas chambers.   In the night, they start shooting naked Jews and dumping them in pits, then pouring gasoline on their bodies – so the fires are burning everywhere.  It looks quite literally like hell on earth – something out of Dante or Hieronymus Bosch. 
This film makes this experience more real than any previous film has done, and yet you cannot cry.  This film was shot on a budget and was never expected to go anywhere.  It is similar in mood to another Hungarian, Imre Kertesz, who won the Nobel in 2002, partly for his “Fateless” story.  That book centered in a somewhat dispassionate way on a boy too, and asserted that there is human normality even in a death camp.

However, this is also the first film to focus on the Sondercommando revolt, yet the revolt is somewhat peripheral to the main narrative.  Auslander fails to deliver some gunpowder smuggled to him by the imprisoned trustee women because he lost it while looking for the rabbi.  It was to be used to blow up the crematoria. The people organizing the revolt – probably Communist prisoners - say to him: “You are sacrificing the living for the dead.”  His response:  “We’re already dead.”  He essentially is trying to do one thing – properly bury a boy who it turns out probably isn’t really his son.  In retrospect it is an act of madness, depression and humanism, but not of collective action.  So the story in this film does not highlight the rebellion – really the only way out of this situation – but this single-minded, somewhat cracked religious narrative.

Why does this matter?  We have seen films on the Warsaw ghetto revolt, the Jewish partisans in the Polish forests, but nothing regarding the camps.  This is the first to my knowledge.  Failing to focus on the rebellion is a huge mistake of political blindness.  That is because the overarching political issue regarding the ‘final solution’ from the viewpoint of the Jews was why were there not more revolts, more escapes, more guerrilla war, more understanding.   It really comes down to the upper-class and religious leadership of the Jewish community – the rich, the Zionists, the collaborators with the Nazis, some of whom bought their way to freedom; the rabbis who counseled cooperation and pacifism; the marginalization of the communists among the Jewish population in so many countries.  These people fatally lulled parts of the Jewish population – and to this day have escaped any penalty.  Some of them went on to found the State of Israel.  Back in the day, the left called this group ‘the Judenrat.’

Soviet Army Liberates Auschwitz
The Soviet Army arrived in Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945, liberating the survivors.
No individual knows how they would have handled this dreadful situation, but certainly political organization and understanding would have been beneficial.  The ambiguous status of the Sonderkommando, who survived by collaborating under threat of death, shows the lengths people will go to survive.  They even knew that their terms would be up at some point, as they were replacing others - so they were only buying a bit of time.  This is a visually and emotionally powerful film with flawed politics, but nevertheless is required viewing. It is perhaps the greatest fiction film on the Holocaust in the camps. 

Other review related to this:  "The Holocaust Industry."  

Red Frog
May 9, 2016

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