After watching The Son of Saul, a member of the audience asked director Laslzo Nemes, age 38, “Why is a young man like you making a film about a concentration camp?” He simply replied that we cannot forget our past. Right now is a crucial time in our history since most of the people who lived through the holocaust are either dead or soon will be gone. Since we did not go through the experience or have someone there to tell us what happened, we will lose sight of what must it have been like to survive a concentration camp like Auschwitz. He is absolutely right. I have been to the exhibit at Auschwitz and thought that I could understand on a rational level what happened there but that did not prepare me for the gruesome imagery of chaos that I saw in his film which later gave me nightmares and a feeling of despair. Nemes explained that some of the source material came from journals that were found buried from the Sonderkommandos that hoped someone in the future would find them. These manuscripts are called the Scrolls of Auschwitz which he came across some ten years ago and which moved him so much that he had to make this film.
The Son of Saul begins in chaos and we hear sounds of screaming officers and images of people being directed to move from here to there but the focus of the film is on the main character, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohig), a Hungarian Jew who is a part of the Sonderkommando –a group of condemned men who are forced to work in the extermination factory. Presenting the main character as focal point gives the film a tunnel vision effect. All the terrible things that are happening, which include corpses being taken to the ovens and then disposing of the ashes, becomes surreal. They lurk in the corners of the main character’s mind as it does with the viewer. Nemes gives us a very realistic view of someone who is most likely under a state of shock in having to deal with this situation. Our minds start to deny what we are seeing and we can relate to Saul and his excoriating circumstances. This film is a far cry from what we normally see in the camps which always seems to have an order and is completely under control. The sound is very important because there is always some sort of sound; it is usually loud and displeasing. There is never a moment of peacefulness and the characters never have the luxury of having space for themselves.
The moment Saul hears that a young boy has survived the gas chamber, he is spiritually awakened and his life has a purpose. The Nazis kill the boy and want an autopsy on him but that’s when something snaps deep inside Saul and is convinces him that the boy deserves a decent burial. Saul believes this boy is his son and represents something very spiritual to him to the point that Saul is willing to risk everything to make sure it happens.
One of the first questions Nemes was asked is why he didn’t get any funding from Germany which normally happens when the subject is WW2. He gave a quick laugh and said that he had hoped for a German co-producer but that just didn’t happen. What was more surprising was that he was turned down by the Berlinale and now, considering the success of this film, they are probably kicking themselves for that mistake. He also added, “Don’t feel too bad. Israel didn’t offer any funding either.” Perhaps they thought that he was a risk since this is his first full-length feature and he used the old method of making this film. He replied that you can’t make this film with digital and get the same quality that he achieved. Nemes had very strong convictions in what is happening in film-making today as he stated that he wanted to make a film, not a digital version that belongs on television. He was funded one hundred percent by Hungary which is interesting in itself considering all the resistance they are giving the in-coming immigrants. The Son of Saul won the grand prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival and stands a good chance of winning an Oscar.
Remember directed by Atom Egoyan from Canada takes a completely different approach to the history at Auschwitz. It begins in a nursing home where two friends Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer) and Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) are discussing the death of Zev’s wife. Despite the fact that Zev is suffering from dementia, his friend Max urges him to complete the promise he had made to his wife, which was to take revenge on the man who killed his family seventy years ago in the concentration camp. Both Max and he remember him and that his name was Rudy Kurlander. So Zev is set on a wild goose chase since there are three Rudy Kurlanders who immigrated to Canada and the United States right after the war and it certainly won’t be easy for a man with dementia. Remember has some very effective scenes such as when Zev meets the son of the second Rudy Kurlander who is a twice-divorced police officer with a very large German Shepard and interest in the Nazi party. Things go a rye when he discovers that Zev is a concentration camp survivor.
Egoyan takes classic Wagner music to set the tone of the film and uses dementia as a veil which slowly changes to more clarity and gives a Hitchcock feel to the overall film. There are also carefully laid-out clues, which point in the direction the film is going. So the ending is not a surprise unless you miss those clues.
Egoyan was very interested in what happens to a person who has such a heavy load on his conscience. Can one really leave one’s past behind and move forward into another life so easily? It is hard to imagine how these Nazis could immigrant to another country and pretend that they were Jewish. Suddenly, for the next fifty years, one is surrounded by the kind of people that they had exterminated in their youth. Egoyan also used the automatic physical reflexes that Zev had stored deep inside his mind even though he said he never used a gun. Clearly he had done so in the past since he could shoot a moving dog who was about to attack him.
In both cases Remember and The Son of Saul will not let you forget the holocaust and its consequences. It will remind us that these acts against humanity can happen anywhere in the world at any time and we should do our best to try to stop them.