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August 15, 2022

Antigone at the time of the Holocaust

Laszlo Nemes did not take the beaten path. Just like Han Tomasz Gross, the historian of the anti-Semitic massacres committed by the Poles, the young Hungarian film director chose the standpoint of the dead. Of those who no longer had the chance to tell the story. Reality was far more terrible than survivors can recount – the Gross axiom has become a challenge for the film director. In this sense, he chose not the perspective of a victim lacking any power and responsibility, nor that of an executioner overwhelmed by culpability, but the perspective of a character with an ambivalent status: a member of a Sonderkommando. The latter was a group of prisoners used to “clean up” the traces of the crimes. Auxiliaries to extermination, they survived the victims per se not by much. They had some limited powers and a status with a modicum of privileges. They were an intermediary category: prisoners destined to be exterminated too, but also the executioners’ slaves. From the film, we deduce that one of the selection criteria was stamina, specific to any activity to “maintain order,” but also to the physical activities required to keep the death plant going. Subjectively speaking, their acceptance depended on an imperative will to survive at any cost, even at the cost of ghoulish complicity.

‘Son of Saul’ recounts a strange case, at the limit of credibility: such a man’s desire, impervious to risks, to bury a random child. To bury him in a context in which all bodies were incinerated and the ashes were taken by truck and dumped in the river. “We are already dead” – this conviction of the main character clearly defines the framework: they are all already in an inferno after life. The bodies thus gain a novel value, they are the privileged targets of one of memory’s duties. Along the moral duties toward the living, memory supports a new standard: the things that lived continue to be alive in a different framework. To burn the bodies is the equivalent of a final, paroxysmal act of debasement. It’s not just a “technical” necessity, of monstrous functionality or of cynical pragmatism, of a killer who wants to cover his tracks. It is, most of all, a completion of the massacre.

But the main character does not only want to bury the boy, he also looks for a veritable rabbi, in order for the ritual to be in line with tradition. It may be the whim of a harebrained person, given the profoundly morally dislocated world of the camp, where survival had become the absolute priority. If God seemed to have completely left this infernal Malebolge, a rabbi would have been significant consolation. As a final revolt against dehumanizing fear. After all, the revolt did not have any chance of success, and belated heroism could not have atoned the complicity to horror. What mattered was consistency with the humanism of death. We ourselves are mostly indifferent to the dead of the part, who are still invoking non-assumed crimes. We ourselves prefer to “burn” the past instead of burying it with sanctimony, keeping it somewhere in our consciousness as a mysterious voice that is worthy of deciphering.    

He wasn’t his son, but through his effort he had adopted him posthumously. A dead man (walking) adopting an even more vulnerable dead man. Often our freedom to choose is drastically limited, but even so, we can find the redeeming gesture from the point of view of more fundamental ethics. The dead are not less important than the living – the message is obvious: many acts of moral surrender are done in the name of life. One who doesn’t respect the dead, doesn’t respect the living either.

But Laszlo Nemes’ film is innovative in another sense too. Saul’s story can be seen as a pretext to present a backdrop worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch minus the surrealist elements. The perspective chosen is located between hyperrealism and parable – apart from some elements of identification, visual and narrative, the story is talking about a rather undetermined “penitentiary colony.” But, at the same time, the most ghoulish gestures are followed in their most cruel reality: the wiping out of blood, the pulling away of corpses, throwing them in ovens, throwing the ashes with shovels, the methodical storage of goods etc. But the backdrop is often foggy, because the camera is focusing on the main character. This shows us reality’s double framework: the subjective one, of the individual caught in his existential route, and the “objective” one of an overwhelming scenography as an inexorable trap from which nobody can get away. We could even compare this infernal maze with the one from “Birdman,” to the advantage of the Hungarian film, which is not merely an introspection of a broken consciousness but which introduces the key-ingredient: culpability. In a world in which everything is possible because of absolute impunity, at one point Saul feels the disregard for burial as inexpiable guilt. And he is trying to act – it matters far too little that everything is apparently useless in the end. The boy’s body will be taken to a river – an intermediary option between incineration and burial, a move in the hope of finding a less accursed location. In the end, only the boy’s dead body avoids incineration and manages to “escape.”

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