Son of Saul

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ – John Keats

When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List I found it disturbing. Not because it presented me with a horrifying nightmare, but because it did not. I was dismayed that a film which was so uplifting, so visually beautiful, so joyful in places, so redemptive and life affirming, was being widely described as a testament to the Holocaust.

In particular I found its moral clarity troubling: There is a good guy and a bad guy. In the end, the good guy triumphs over the bad guy, and we all leave the theater satisfied, maybe having had a good cry. Yay Hollywood!

Most important, by directing our attention to a single psychotic “bad guy”, Schindler’s List did not convey, or even really touch upon, the true moral horror that was the Holocaust. I found myself wondering whether such moral horror was something that simply could not be communicated within the framework of a two hour movie.

Several days ago, when I mentioned I was about to see Son of Saul, a friend who had seen it tried to warn me. “Do you know what you are in for?” she asked ominously. Well, her fears were for naught. Son of Saul is everything that Schindler’s List was not. In particular, it is actually about the Holocaust. It is not about good guys and bad guys, or anything Hollywood might recognize. Rather, it is about things that are much more difficult, and much more important. One of those things is the fact that humans, ordinary humans like us, are capable of unimaginable cruelty, and yes, evil.

In Schindler’s List it is comforting to be able to point to the lone psychopath picking off prisoners from a balcony, and tell ourselves “I’m not like that guy”. In Son of Saul there is no such convenient Voldemort, nothing that easy. The Concentration camp is a vision of hell that is so vivid, so immense, that we cannot help but place ourselves there. It forces us to ask hard questions about ourselves, and that is exactly what art is supposed to do.

Strangely, I didn’t find it difficult to watch — quite the opposite. In contrast, I had found Game of Thrones difficult to watch (I finally had to stop) because it seemed to be filled with gratuitous cruelty and violence, all seemingly for its own sake.

In Son of Saul nothing is gratuitous. There is no sentimentality, no grandstanding or speechifying, not an ounce of fat nor a self-indulgent moment. From beginning to end, you feel as though you are in the presence of truth.

Yes, I had gone into the theater with trepidation. But watching Son of Saul turned out to be a profoundly beautiful experience.

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