Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Considering Son of Saul

I finally watched Son of Saul. My husband received the screener a number of weeks back, but we had been reluctant to watch it. For nearly fifteen years now I've been a scholar of the Holocaust, which means I've seen more Holocaust films than most can imagine. When I first started watching them, it was painful, but the more films I watched, the easier it became. I stopped crying at a certain point. My watching become mechanical, as I consistently assessed whether each film was an ethical or transgressive representation of the un-representable.

It was a few years back when I realized this--that I had stopped crying. I know that it was likely a kind of internal defense mechanism. Can the spirit handle so much without being crushed? But I felt ashamed of the stoic intellectualism that moderated my viewing of each film. I've since learned that many scholars who deal constantly with collective tragedies--the Holocaust, other genocides, 9/11, slavery, etc.--experience similar reactions after a time. It's necessary, I suppose. But, still.

But then I had a baby in December 2012. A few months later as I prepared a lecture on Babi Yar, I felt my chest tighten. It was happening again, and I couldn't control it, no matter how I steeled myself. It was one photo that did it, that re-opened everything. This photo:

His name was Gregory, and in 1941 he was taken, with many others, to a ravine outside of Kiev and murdered. I just cracked wide open when I saw this photo. I covered my face and just sobbed in a way I just don't...ever. Was it that I saw my little boy in Gregory's face? Was it the fear that one day it could be my little boy whose face a professor pastes into a powerpoint presentation? I'm not sure.

Not long after my breakdown, I was invited to a screening of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey Film (I know, it's not the greatest title, but I think giving it a creative title would be inappropriate, since it's no artistic project). It's a film comprised entirely of footage from concentration camps that has not been seen by many people until recently (though many years ago Alfred Hitchcock did try to turn some of the footage into a film). Given my long history of viewing Holocaust films and documentaries, I thought I had seen the worst of the worst. I mean, who can watch Night and Fog and wake up the same person the next day? But this film was more gruesome than anything I'd ever seen. The way naked corpses were dragged and thrown around--those images have become part of my DNA I think. And the footage of German citizens, including children, being marched through the concentration camps after liberation, ostensibly to bear witness to what had happened in their own backyard, was excruciating. I hadn't realized that was done. And yes, certainly they should have to face what they had become an accomplice to, but there was something truly terrible about watching them bear witness--something I can't quite name. I walked home from the Museum of Tolerance (yes, of course I would live in walking distance to the MOT) after the viewing, my face wet and my chest heaving.

And after this experience of something un-nameable, I stopped watching Holocaust films, and read as little as possible. I finished teaching my Holocaust Film and Literature course and admitted to myself that I might not ever be able to teach it again--that it was time for someone else to take it from me. I know that there is a direct correlation between my hyper-empathetic response and giving birth to a child. Others, including Claire Katz, have written beautifully about the role of the feminine and the maternal in the context of ethical responsibility. And it makes sense that creating one life would deepen one's value of all lives. But in reality my emotional response troubled me, as I weighed my newly charged sense of compassion for the other--my deepened sense of responsibility, as it were--against my responsibility to keep telling the stories of survivors so that they won't die.

What was for years a scholarly obsession had become something I avoided at all costs for a couple of years. But then all this talk about Son of Saul, and so many people wanting to know if I had seen it. I felt like I was ready again and so we watched it.

I don't regret it. It's a brilliant film in many ways. But I regret the existence of such an event that would inspire this film. Of course. It was terrible to watch. I was angry within minutes of the film beginning. And I was confused. In many instances I felt disoriented and didn't quite understand what was happening. I was barely with it, hardly hanging on. The dialogue is sparse, and the constant close-up shots eliminate the possibility of gathering detail from context in many moments. All one sees, really, is the face--the face of the other. Everything else is obscured. And this is how it must have been to be there, in the place that we cannot recreate or represent. The confusion and lack of clarity, the pushing and shoving, intensity and urgency, the inability to tell with certainty who it is who is speaking or screaming. It could only have been chaos, maddening chaos. And this is how the film brings us in to a deeper understanding of the camps. That Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando who makes it his mission to bury the body of a boy he takes as his symbolic son is a paradox of sorts. It makes no sense. And yet here it is--ethical responsibility materializing in a place where the ethical has come to die, ushered in by a man who is forced to burn corpses rather than bury them.

I don't know if or when I'll teach another Holocaust class. But if I do, this will be the film that I show. Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And so we have to think of such things.