Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: May 2015

13iht-rcannessaul-superJumbo

Source: Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times, May 12, 2015

The Hungarian film “Saul Fia” (Son of Saul) takes place in a hell within hell: the world of the Sonderkommandos, the Jews in Auschwitz who were forced to dispose of the dead. Separated from the general population of prisoners, they manned the crematories, and were themselves purged every few months. The routine epitomizes a death camp where, as Primo Levi wrote in “Survival in Auschwitz,” “many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.”

Auschwitz would be a grim challenge for any filmmaker to portray, but “Son of Saul” is in fact a debut feature, by the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes. His unusual Holocaust drama is a rare first film selected for the competition at the Cannes International Film Festival.

“Laszlo Nemes shows what we thought would be impossible to show in a fiction film, an extermination camp at work, as a factory of death,” said the film historian and critic Antoine de Baecque. “By following the specific gaze of a cog inside this machinery,” he added, “the movie successfully adopts, with discipline and fairness, the only possible representation of a tragedy morally unfilmable.”

In writing and directing the story, Mr. Nemes, 38, sought a clear-eyed realism about horrors that remain painful to imagine. Set over a 36-hour period in October 1944, “Son of Saul” hews to the perspective of Saul Auslander, a fictional member of a Sonderkommando unit. One day, Saul thinks he recognizes his lost son among the dead to be cremated, and his obsessive efforts to bury the boy puts him in conflict with prisoners who are plotting a rebellion.

“Our approach was to follow a main character through a very limited space and time, and have a very simple and almost archaic story as the skeleton of the film,” Mr. Nemes said in a Skype conversation from Budapest, where he lives. “We felt that we couldn’t shoot the whole Holocaust. We didn’t want to tell too much and shoot too much.”

For verisimilitude, Mr. Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer drew on survivor accounts as well as writings that prisoners buried in the earth and that were discovered years later. Rather than offer a broad view of the camp, as many past movies of the Holocaust have, “Son of Saul” sticks close to its protagonist with very dynamic, very mobile camerawork and limits our focus to what he is looking at.

“The overall idea is you’re like a sea snake, going all over the place,” Mr. Nemes said of his 107-minute feature. “We remain inside the limitations of a human being.” His 2007 short film “With a Little Patience” maintains a similar focus on a blinkered German clerk during the Nazi era.

Mr. Nemes’s formative experience includes a two-year stint as assistant to the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr on “The Man From London” (2007) (Mr. Nemes’s father, Andras Jeles, is also a director.) With Mr. Tarr, he said, he learned about not only a sense of organic realism and the artistic importance of choosing your battles, but also the centrality of the actor.

For “Son of Saul,” Mr. Nemes found a deeply committed performer in Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet who wrote his first collection about the Holocaust and plays Auslander in the film.

“We did not want to talk about the message of Auschwitz,” Mr. Rohrig said of the film’s aims, speaking by telephone from New York, where he has lived for 15 years. “We wanted to create an experience that works on you on a different level, with your bowels, your intestines. We want you to get the intensity and tempo of the life of a Sonderkommando worker.”

Mr. Rohrig had acted a little in Polish and Hungarian films. He said a major religious change in his life came in the 1980s with a visit to Auschwitz, where he recalls seeing among the prisoner artifacts the same brand of toothbrush as his own.

For the actor, “Son of Saul” transcends the tendencies of many Holocaust films, such as “Schindler’s List,” to seek refuge in survival narratives and good-and-evil clichés. Through the death of a son, his character gets an unexpected emotional release. “Everybody is a zombie already in the camp,” Mr. Rohrig said. “People are already destroyed. They only care about their next meal. But witnessing his son’s death, Saul all of a sudden becomes normal.”

Mr. Nemes first met Mr. Rohrig during a short stint at New York University as a film student, and describes him as “very intellectual but at the same time extremely instinctive and physical.” The rest of the film’s cast is mostly international, part of an effort to suggest what he calls the “Babel of languages” in the chaotic camps.

The director’s close-knit creative team included the cinematographer Matyas Erdely, who also shot Mr. Nemes’s short films and features by the Cannes veteran Kornel Mundruczo, also of Hungary. One of the rare features to use 35-millimeter film, “Son of Saul” was shot in 30 days. “What a first feature can afford,” Mr. Nemes said. The budget of about 1.5 million euros, or $1.65 million, came mostly from the Hungarian National Film Fund and the New York-based Claims Conference.

An old military base on the outskirts of Budapest served as the movie’s location. The burden of history was always present for Mr. Nemes, he said — he and some members of his team had relatives who died in the camps. “Why I don’t have a family right now — it’s a very small family — is because of that,” he said. “You can feel the society being haunted by these traumatic experiences and by never having to face what happened.”

Mr. Nemes, , who grew up partly in Paris, felt an “edge of suspicion” from interviewers when talking about the film on television shows in his home country.

“You can feel that they cannot really connect with the material,” he said. “It’s like: Oh, another Holocaust movie. That’s the best you can get. Then: Why do you have to talk about the Holocaust? Why is it important to you?”

For Mr. Rohrig, he is wary of critics who might object to the very attempt to portray the Holocaust with such fidelity.

“I don’t think any subject matter is off the table when it comes to art,” he said. “I think it can be done. I hope it was done by us.”

For Mr. Nemes, however, the film’s importance will not necessarily lie in such external reactions, but in whether it provokes an emotional response in viewers. The film aims to show “the importance of the inner voice when there’s no more hope,” he said, adding, “We still reaffirm some kind of faith in something — some would say God, some would say this belief in humanity, in something universal.”

Green01

Source: Steve Friess, New Republic, May 17, 2015

In the course of reporting “A Liberator, But Never Free,” about the recent discovery of the late Dr. David Wilsey’s letters home from the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, one intriguing semantic anomaly transfixed every expert consulted: the Spokane anesthesiologist’s persistent use of the word “holocaust” to describe the horrors all around him.

There has long been a rigorous debate among etymologists and historians as to when the lowercased “holocaust,” generically defined as a large-scale calamity usually involving fire, became the proper noun used specifically to name the period of Nazi genocide against European Jews. Yet there is little debate that that formalization occurred years after the war’s end.

“I immediately wrote it down the first time I saw him using this word,” said historian Patricia Heberer-Rice of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “There’s a bit of a conundrum about when this word was first used.” Harold Marcuse, a Holocaust historian at University of California San Diego and author of Legacies of Dachau, said, “The fact that he’s using it right then, in that context, makes it a very interesting historical fact that will contribute to scholarship.”

“We were (are) in a nightmarish holocaust,” Wilsey wrote on March 23, 1945, as his U.S. Army unit, the 116thEvacuation Hospital, moved across France into Germany behind the advancing Allied line. “Gosh, darlin, a guy just wonders how many times the world is going to ask for the holocaust-messes to be gone through. Each one seems about the ‘last straw’ and yet more and more come.” Then, two days later: “Holocaust! After holocaust! After holocaust! is just wearing me to a nub.” On April 20, as the 116th approaches Dachau and rumors circulate about what might be found there, he wrote, “We are the only [Evacuation Hospital] within a 100 miles of this horrible holocaust.” Four days after that: “We had a least wee hopes of not stepping right up into another holocaust — but preliminary reports at least indicate it might well be that ‘nightmarish holocaust’ all over again from this site.” The references taper off in his letters from Dachau itself but pick up again later in the year, as in a November 14 passage that referenced “this world holocaust.”

The word itself is of Greek origins: holos is “completely” and kaustos is “sacrificial offering.” It had largely been used to refer to massive destructions by fire, most prominently in the title of a dystopian 1844 short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Earth’s Holocaust,” in which all the world’s literature and artwork is deliberately burned. That was, in fact, the context of the first known use of the term in reference to the Nazis, a 1933 Newsweek story about a book-burning campaign in Germany. According to a 2005 Jewish Forward piece, a top rabbi in what was then Palestine wrote to a colleague in a telegram about the need for a “day of mourning throughout [the] world for holocaust synagogues [in] Germany” after Kristallnacht, a November 1938 night of terror in which Jewish homes were ransacked and windows broken across Germany.

There were smatterings of usage prior to World War II to refer to mass slaughters, too, including with regard to the Armenian Genocide. And a1943 New York Times piece about talks regarding Palestine references “the hundreds and thousands of European Jews still surviving the Nazi holocaust.”

Yet for decades after the war, the genocide lacked any formal title in English except, perhaps, “The Final Solution,” the term the Nazis used. In Hebrew, the calamity quickly became known as “Shoah,” which means “the catastrophe.” But it wasn’t until the 1960s that scholars and writers began using the term “Holocaust,” and it took the 1978 TV film Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, to push it into widespread use.

Wilsey’s usage, then, is curious. It wasn’t a particularly common word, but he was a well-educated man of 30 using it to describe his surroundings to his well-educated wife, Emily. More than likely, says William Donahue, a linguistics professor who focuses on Holocaust literature at the Center for Judaic Studies at Duke University, Wilsey used the term generically and almost certainly not specifically to refer to the slaughter of Jews. Even when Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945, and the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, it wouldn’t have been clear to a man like Wilsey the extreme extent of the genocide and the Jews’ brunt of it, he said.

Allied governments, Donahue said, downplayed the extent of the peril to Jews in their rally-the-homefront propaganda materials, for fear that many non-Jews wouldn’t be willing to fight and die for what was still a marginalized religious minority regarded suspiciously even in the U.S. Wilsey himself reflected those attitudes in a letter on April 4, 1945, in which he complains about a Jewish anesthesiologist he was forced to bunk with. “ Dear, medicine is so full of them, so usurped by them, so progressively becoming ruled by them — that we white men just must not do all we can to help them.” A paragraph later, in fact, he blames his Jewish colleague’s “Prussianism”—his Eastern European background—for “exactly what has caused 3 holocaustic wars.”

It’s impossible to know from Wilsey’s letters alone why he used the term, who influenced him to use it, or who, perhaps, he influenced. At Dachau, as documented in his letters, he was present for visits by a parade of world dignitaries, from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to members of Congress and the British Parliament. Might he have used it in a conversation and inspired others to do so? Or do his letters reflect a more common usage among the intelligentsia in the European Theater of the war than was previously understood?

“It’s another data point for those interested in this particular historical mystery,” Marcuse said.