Arts feature

Should the Final Solution ever be made into entertainment?

Amid the abundant cinema of Nazi atrocity, the Oscar-winning Son of Saul is exemplary. Ian Thomson explains why

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

In July 1986, nine months before he died, I met the Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin. He was in shirtsleeves for the interview and the concentration camp tattoo 174517 was visible on his left forearm. (‘A typical German talent for classification,’ he tartly observed.) If This is a Man, Levi’s chronicle of survival, offers a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who have survived the Nazi camps have the right to forgive or condemn.

Attempts to recreate the Final Solution on screen were mostly a ‘macabre indecency’, said Levi. The 1978 Hollywood television soap opera Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, helped to break 33 years of near-silence in Germany surrounding Hitler’s war against the Jews, but Levi feared the dramatisation would cheapen the enormity of Auschwitz. Once that happens, the process of forgetting has already begun. The 1970s saw a rash of other films that falsified the nature of Nazi violence. Tawdry box-office hits such as The Night Porter and Salon Kitty played on a lurid fantasy of sexual relations between the SS and their prisoners. With their paraphernalia of whips and jackboots, the films were ‘swastika chic — the stuff of pornography’, Levi judged.

Son of Saul, the debut film by the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, 39, defies our tendency to oversimplify and judge. Based on true events, it tells of Jews who were forced to collaborate at Auschwitz in order to survive. In return for clothes and food, the camp’s Special Squads or Sonderkommandos had to shepherd fellow Jews to the gas chambers. Nemes’s film, which has won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, offers no crass explanations for how the Nazis degraded others into their moral corruption. As an Auschwitz guard says in If This is a Man: ‘Here there is no why.’

Saul (played by the Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig) works at a furious ‘SS trot’ to ensure the efficient assembly-line gassing of human beings. While hosing down a gas chamber with his Sonderkommando unit one day in October 1944 he discovers the body of a child he thinks is his son. To save just one death from the industrial exploitation of Jewish corpses — their ashes and their teeth — would affirm human dignity. So Saul now risks everything to give the boy a dignified Jewish burial. By this late stage in the war the Nazi practice of extermination — Vernichtungswissenschaft — had become so refined that the condemned remained deceived until the doors shut on them in the false shower rooms. Shockingly, the film opens with sounds off-screen of wailing and banging on doors as Zyklon-B crystals (a pesticide used to kill rats) suffocate another trainload of Hungarian Jews.

Unlike Roberto Benigni’s offensively trite 1997 Nazi camp ‘comedy’ Life is Beautiful, the Hungarian film raises the question of whether fiction can do justice to the incredibility of Auschwitz. There have been other slaughters in recent times, but none was so ferocious, so total in its effect, as that willed by Hitler’s Germans in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe. But should such suffering be recreated for our entertainment? Is it morally permissible? The debate is not new.

Alain Resnais’ landmark documentary Night and Fog, released in 1955 to mark the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps, juxtaposed archive material with colour footage of the present-day sites of Auschwitz and Majdanek. For all its quiet power, the film feels slightly dated. Claude Lanzmann, who directed the nine-hour oral history Shoah, believes that archive photographs of piles of women’s hair and suitcases at Auschwitz have lost their emotive power. Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was dismissed by Lanzmann as a pietistic work that ‘trivialised’ the Jewish tragedy, but Son of Saul won his admiration. ‘It’s very original, very unusual,’ Lanzmann said, adding, ‘It’s a film that gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando.’ Really? How can a film communicate that degree of meaningless evil?

For almost two hours we stare into Saul’s fear-ridden face as he hurries round Auschwitz in search of a rabbi for the boy’s burial. Shot in jerky 35mm, the film pulls the viewer into a shouting, clanging babel of barked German orders and bursts of Magyar and other east European tongues. There is no music, but sickly yellow-green shadows contribute to a sense of Auschwitz as a vile and isolated instance of human infamy. The ‘machinery of extermination’ (as Lanzmann calls it) is accentuated by a soundscape of clanking cattle-car doors and a metallic scraping of shovels. Indistinctly glimpsed details of German uniforms and naked gassed bodies suggest a Dantean hellpit.

Son of Saul has the visceral impact of Elem Klimov’s 1985 war film Come and See. The absence of meaning or explanation for the Nazi camp’s purpose forces us to reflect on our cultural obsession with Nazi Germany and the destruction of European Jewry. Scarcely a year goes by without a film depicting yellow stars, stamping black boots and a sadistic SS overseer. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness: these are great movies up to a point. They are designed to promote catharsis and a roseate glow of hope in us, when the reality is that Hitler and his race-engineers did not allow for hope. At Auschwitz, anus mundi, the murder of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was made a civic virtue; in this way, Germany departed from the community of civilised human beings.

Seventy years on, we are still trying to understand the catastrophe that engulfed the Jews in the Hitlerite storm. Son of Saul, for all its evident originality, has been wrongly compared to Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film The Grey Zone, about the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. Primo Levi’s darkest (and most painfully argued) essay, ‘La zona grigia’, lent the title to this film, which stars Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel. Unfortunately, Hollywood celebrities jarr in films that seek to answer the central question: how the country that gave us Bach and Goethe was able to commit such a crime as murder all the Jews within its jurisdiction. The Grey Zone, with its maudlin violin score, cheapens as well as glamorises the Nazi atrocities.

Amid the abundant cinema of Nazi atrocity, however, Son of Saul is exemplary. Nemes does not attempt to recreate the more bestial aspects of Hitler’s demolition project. Instead, everything comes down to one man’s suffering. Saul’s face in close-up creates an extraordinary sense of communion and intimacy with the audience. His increasingly desperate attempts to bury the child are narrated without the prurient tenor of much ‘Holocaust’ cinema (Sophie’s Choice, Escape from Sobibor), yet we are dazed by the daring of his self-appointed mission to lay an innocent to rest. Son of Saul appears at a moment when the debate about film and the Nazi camps has been revived with the restoration of Sidney Bernstein’s documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, and Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall, which charts that film’s suppression by the British government after the war on grounds of shocking content.

Against the odds, Son of Saul has become Hungary’s biggest independent film at the box office, while Germany was pointedly hesitant to release a movie that might provoke levels of national guilt. For years after the war, German writers and film-makers neglected to refer by name either to the Nazis or their victims. (Instead of ‘Jews’, the novelist Heinrich Böll alluded coyly to ‘the lambs’.) German admonitions to ‘overcome the past’ and do the ‘labour of mourning’ (Trauerarbeit) will now include screenings of Laszlo Nemes’s taboo-breaking film. All life and death is in its burning images; let the images haunt us.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Son of Saul is released in key cities on 29 April.

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  • lobotomisedjournalist

    Any film that gives insight into the hopelessness and trauma of all the individuals crushed by the German ‘Vernichtungswissenschaft’ (The word itself is a peculiarly German linguistic barbarism) serves an important purpose. The world needs to be continually reminded about how easy it is for human beings to turn their greed and hatred into a particularly human brutality, and to turn from utterances of hatred to a level of conscienceless violence that no beasts could ever stoop to. As the holocaust, the Rawanda massacres, and the Chinese devastation in Tibet have shown us ‘inhuman’ is an inadequate word – it is unfortunately all too human.

    • Penny

      I agree, but also think that there is a chance that when the focus is on the end stage of the Holocaust there is a tendency among some to see this as “antisemitism” – i.e. it’s about the Holocaust’s conclusion more than gradual worsening of the situation that led to it. I take this view from a comment I read, written by Karl Pfeiffer who asked (paraphrased) where antisemitism begins: is it with the newspapers portraying crude cartoons of hook-nosed Jews, or is it when they are being herded into cattle trucks?

      There is also the danger that the Holocaust is seen as something that could never happen again, or that there was something in the German mindset that allowed such a horror to occur. In my view, films like the German “Die Welle”, and perhaps experiments conducted by Milgram and Zimbardo, used as educational tools alongside Holocaust films, can help us to understand how easy it is to manipulate the population – any population, not just the Germans – into evil.

      • Richard Lutz

        Excellent point. The key lesson to be learned from atrocities like the Holocaust is that ordinary people just like us and our loved ones can commit truly terrible crimes if we turn our back on our better selves.

        • Penny

          For me, the interesting point about the Milgram experiment was that the subjects inflicted pain on another human being (or thought they were) only because an authority figure clad in a white lab coat told them to do so. Their better selves questioned their behaviour but the authority figure was able to override their hesitiation and concern. Since learning about this experiment in my student days I’ve seen the same “obedience to an authority figure” play out in numerous ways – most especially with doctors and any kind of “teacher”.

          • Richard Lutz

            I don’t accept that the volunteers in the Milgram experiment were merely obeying orders against their better judgement or nature. There was a part of them (and us all) that wants to impose our will as it feels good to do so. Power over others is best demonstrated by doing things they do not like such as inflicting pain on them. We must not hide from the truth. The only way to overcome this is to liberate ourselves from our alienation so we feel empathy for everyone, not just our loved ones. This requires a commitment to being decent human beings who believe we are duty bound to protect others without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or creed.

            Humans are social beings who naturally seek a democratic consensus that protects the shared interests of all. There can be no better expression of the social democratic impulse than helping end the exploitation, abuse and neglect of one human being by another; which can only be fully realized by liberating people from their alienation, and in so doing help build a bridge to the future where the state and the people are united in their love for the individual. We must be guided by a great feeling of love for each other and strive every day so this love of living humanity is transformed into acts that serve as examples for others in order to help create a better world.

    • M. Zungu

      Not at all German linguistic barbarism, but part of German grammar, namely the rule to form a compound word by lining-up words — in this case “annihilation” + “science”. Google only returns one use for the book-title:
      Kriegsforschung und Vernichtungswissenschaft in der BRD.
      Rilling, Rainer
      Köln, Pahl-Rugenstein, 1970.

    • Sargon the bone crusher

      In other words you want entertainment.

      • red2black

        It begins as ‘entertainment’ for the perpetrators. Pass the popcorn.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Here’s the deal, Spectator.
    Call off the Disqus blocking and I’ll give you an exclusive on Border Force.
    This involves outright lies, corruption and conspiracy on the part of Border Force officers. However, knowing your reputation as fearless journalists swho operate under the watchword, “Let the truth be told though the heavens fall”, it’s equally likely you will make the blocking 100%. However, those guys at the Daily Mail seem to be on the case. It’s your call.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Darnell Jackson

      Hi Jack

      What happened as it really seems to have p1ss3d you off?

      Try Gilligan as he is fearless, maybe Willard Foxton even.


  • M. Zungu

    Which “final solution” anyway? In an 1867 letter to Grant, General William Tecumseh Sherman promised his president “the final solution to the Indian problem”. Why always that focus on the Germans?

    • Sgtsnuffy


      • AWoLsco

        There are two main accounts of the USA and red indians.
        1) The Hollywood tear-jerker sentimentalised account….which is easy to absorb

        2) The dry dusty painstakingly somewhere near the truth account……which is a long and difficult account full of twists and turns and mind-boggling contradictions….which is difficult to absorb,
        No 1) thus dominates the popular imagination.

        Underpinning the whole story of the USA and the red Indians, are facts that are never mentioned by the tear- jerking brigade…..
        a)That the Indians sided with the British in the War of Independence.The British and the Indians lost.
        b) The early USA couldn’t make its mind up whether to treat Indians as sovereign nations…or treat them as citizens of the USA….a very tricky situation…so tricky in fact that it should be thrown back on any intelligent half-thoughtful reader….
        Given the circumstances of the day( no mobile phones or horseless carriages)
        late 1700s, early 1800s……..What would YOU have done?

        btw the ‘trail of tears’ took place 1 yr after Jackson left office and was not organised by him……. and turned into a fiasco as a result of half-baked, half-hearted organisation and corruption.
        Despite the fact, that 8,000 out of 18,000 died……. had it not taken place, then there would probably be NO INDIANS AT ALL, ALIVE TODAY, in the USA.

        • Mary Barnes

          The British Empire killed 100 million people. 80 million were killed in Indian famines. I am ashamed of that. But I am still proud to be British, because I know the vast majority of British people are against the imperial values.

          • AWoLsco

            “The British Empire killed 100 million people.”

            A wild exaggeration and wilful misinterpretation of history. 90% of the time the British just walked in and took over. There was little opposition and that took place in two significant places N America and what is now Afghanistan and there, they lost.

            “80 million were killed in Indian famines.”

            That sounds dramatic but we are talking India. That would be about 1.25% of the population…… hardly a gross disaster.
            As one Indian put it to me……all you johnny foreigners come here, but you depart, or get absorbed after a few years…..The Mongols, the Dutch, the French, the British ….and India just shrugs them off and carries on.
            I think he made a good point there.
            I think few Europeans have any real concept of the size and scale of India in comparison to a European country. It’s like comparing a pebble on the beach with the Rock of Gibraltar.

          • Mary Barnes

            The British Empire killed 100 million end of story. Look it up. I am ashamed of that part of our history, but i am still proud to be British.

          • AWoLsco

            “end of story.”

            Yes……. end of fairy story.

            People are dying right now in their millions and there is no war or very little, and if there is an empire today it’s an American one.
            Perhaps, you, who is so keen on figures, should put up a website keeping track of all the people that are dying during the lifetime of the Pax Americana.
            It would make for enthralling viewing.

            ” I am ashamed of that part of our history, but i am still proud to be British.”

            So, you won’t object to my calling you a muddleheaded hypocrite?

          • Mary Barnes

            You are a creep of the highest order.

  • Trailblazer10

    Not much about the horrors of the Bolsheviks and various communist regimes. Plenty of them and on a vast scale.

  • grammarschoolman

    ‘Should the Final Solution ever be made into entertainment?’

    Maybe not, but Ken Livingstone’s just managed it.

  • Sgtsnuffy


  • Sargon the bone crusher

    I have lived too long; to see Britain a centre of Islam, of anti-semitism, of power-protecting rape of kufar girls, of the sleaze balls taking over a political party, of corrupted politicised police, of political criminality.
    Why not entertain the Kingdom of the Slobs with the Shoa; there are no standards left there.
    Britain is a running sewer of social religious and political obscenity. Orchestrated by the monstrous BBC,
    Go right ahead – none of you would know what is right or wrong anyway.

    • Hogspace

      What isn’t being mentioned is how the muslims of today, Daesh, would recreate the holocaust in Israel and bid to outdo the barbarity of the Germans, without the industrialised efficiency of course. If it wasn’t for the IDF and our own foresight to help arm Israel with atomic weapons the tiny nation of 8 million people would be a charnel pit with Daesh, Hamas and Hezbolah competing to outdo each other in the extermination of Jews. While butchering each other as well, of course.
      Other muslims across the middle east and Asia, some tut tutting in public would be wringing their hands with glee in private. Exuberance would leak out onto the streets. Perhaps in Egypt we would see some signs of horror.
      In Iran the Star of David, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Flag would be burning in the streets.
      Here in the West we would be choking on the mealy mouthed platitudes of the Left. The NUS would refuse to condemn it. The SWP would talk about rolling back “colonialism”. Palestinian flags would be flying, not least in IRA strongholds in Northern Ireland.
      In the Republic of Ireland all the expressions of horror would be qualified with sickening postscripts about “The Palestinians”. Colonialism. The Brits. The Americans. How The Jews brought this upon themselves.

      • Sargon the bone crusher

        You are correct.
        I watched the Palestinians dancing in the streets at the events of 9/11.
        AND in New York. Trump was correct- to was reported at the time, then subsequently suppressed.
        The special collapse now happening in Britain in in other European states is in part a result of President Obama; seen as anti-Israeli, and having gone to the Pacific and having also given the whole of North Africa ( including Egypt) to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptians kicked back, much to the obvious rage of that cockroach Hillary.
        Little Israel is an easy target.
        I fear for them. I fear for our Jews.
        I am ashamed of Britain in a way I never thought I would ever be.
        When I was a child, I swore I would do all I could to protect Jews if they were ever to be threatened again. I may need to act upon that, much to my surprise and very great sadness.
        The left in Britain is very close to pushing the country over the edge into civil war, I suspect. There is such rage; and the BBC is their dreadful mouthpiece. A tragedy for such a cultural titan to have become so corrupted politically.

        • Paul S HK

          What extraordinary fantastical hogwash!

          • Sargon the bone crusher

            Aaaah YOu be a luvr ov Mowhamyd!

          • Paul S HK

            Exactly what I meant to say….

  • rjbh

    The Zios use the Holocaust to further their aims on Palestine…Its a form of entertainment for those Jews that wish destruction on Palestinian Homeland.

    • Penny

      If this is what you think then clearly, the actual lesson of the Holocaust has – worryingly – whizzed right over your head.

  • AWoLsco

    Do you ever get depressed by the plethora of holocaust films, replete with doom-laden, woeful music, that sets the scene. The music is a vital part of engendering an emotional rather than a rational response.
    Here’s a couple of things to experiment with…..
    1) turn the sound off.
    2) turn the sound off and play a recording of “the Archers”.
    The effects are utterly amazing…..and do remember….the actors and actresses are ACTING….and being paid good, very good, money for it.

    • Mary Barnes

      You really are a creep. The holocaust was evil, and we must never forget Mein Kampf and Hitler. Hitler was the most evil man of the 20th century.

      • AWoLsco

        “Hitler was the most evil man of the 20th century.”

        Absolute nonsense.
        When it comes to real evil, he was easily trumped , many times over by the syphilitic, homosexual, part-jew Vladimir Ulyanov( lenny lenin) and Leiba Bronstein( trotsky) a mass-murdering, sadistic bolshevik jew.
        Even the mighty midget, tiny Jo Djugashvilli( half jew), Stalin, the bank robber, was a bit of an improvement on that pair of devil-worshippers.

        As for the ‘holocaust’, it was nothing special in the annals of human history and has been exaggerated out of all proportion.
        The media harp on about this event incessantly and ignore completely the far greater, 10 times greater, mass-murders that took place in Russia after the so-called revolution….which wasn’t a revolution at all, but a stage-managed coup.

        Propaganda lasts for about 1-1.5 generations(according to the KGB)….then doubt and scepticism creep in…… as they are now doing with this post-war holocaust fabrication.
        Looks like they are spot-on.

        “Lies come first and drag along the gullible. Truth limps in, long after, on the arm of time”….Balthazar Gracian.

        • Mary Barnes

          You are creep of the highest order. Hitler was the most evil man in history.

  • alberto

    ‘Seventy years on, we are still trying to understand the catastrophe’

    try slightly too hard and you end up in jail.

  • Doug

    Holocaust definition: “a Jewish sacrificial offering which was burnt completely on an altar.”

    Seems a very odd way to characterise the slaughter of millions of people. Unless Jews are very, very sick people, why put a religious term to it?

  • Richard Lutz

    Ian Thomson did a wonderful job with his review of Son of Saul and I hope it comes to a local cinema so I can see it on the big screen as it was intended to be viewed. There are few films relating to the Holocaust that I would recommend as most amount to a crass exploitation of a monumental crime against humanity or fail to evoke empathy for the victims and a sense of outrage and horror at their situation.

    Shoah stands head and shoulders above them all and is a masterpiece of documentary film making. Of the movies I have seen the original Diary of Anne Frank starring Millie Perkins stands tall. I would also recommend the documentaries Anne Frank Remembered, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, and the BBC’s World at War mini-series which has an episode about the Holocaust and rightly places it in the context of WWII – a geopolitical catastrophe that caused the deaths of 60 million people. A film that comes to mind is Zorba the Greek, which I believe achieves what Life is Beautiful spectacularly failed to do. To my mind Zorba is an existential masterpiece that may well be the only movie that everybody should see.

  • bilejones

    What’s wrong of making entertainment out of a work of fiction?