I was inspired to write about the Hungarian film Son of Saul when it won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But at the same time I was finishing this post, I learned about the unfortunate passing of Imre Kertész (1929-2016). He was one of Hungary’s greatest contemporary writers and the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is perhaps best known for his brilliant and masterfully written Fatelessness. The common denominator between Son of Saul and Fatelessness is the Holocaust, more specifically its Hungarian chapter.
On March 19, 1944 the German army occupied Hungary. The next day, Adolf Eichmann and his small special unit arrived. By April 7, there was a plan for the ghettoization of the Hungarian Jewry. By April 22, German and Hungarian authorities decided on the total deportation of Hungarian Jewry. However, as recent historical works point out, when Eichmann arrived he did so “without a complete and detailed plan.” Between May 15 and July 6, Eichmann, enjoying “enthusiastic and efficient Hungarian support,” carried out the deportation of 437,402 Hungarian Jews (Csősz, and Kádár, 2013). The culpability of Hungarian authorities is beyond a doubt, including that of the Regent, Miklós Horthy who finally did halt the deportations—if only temporarily— and was able to do so without much resistance. Most of the Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz and were subsequently murdered. One of every three victims killed in Auschwitz was Hungarian, making the extermination camp the single largest Hungarian cemetery.
The Hungarian Holocaust and Hungarian responsibilities for this most atrocious chapter in the country’s history, and indeed that of humanity’s at large, remains a controversial and highly politicized issue. Thankfully, historians—both in Hungary and beyond—continue to produce quality research examining the event. Yet, while it is certainly unfortunate, academic books and lectures are not necessarily reaching the general public. Here is where the explanatory power of literature and cinema can help to build knowledge and consensus. Imre Kertész and László Nemes, the director of Son of Saul, offer the very best illustrations of the transformative power of these mediums.
Imre Kertész was born in Budapest to middleclass Jewish parents who later divorced. In 1944 at the age of fourteen he was arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and was later sent to Buchenwald. After liberation he returned to his native Hungary, where in 1960 he began to write his book Fatelessness (Sorstalanság in Hungarian). The communist authorities refused to publish it at first, but finally in 1975 the first Hungarian edition appeared. The book is not a memoir. While it is certainly colored by Kertész’s own experiences, the semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a young boy, Gyuri, as he tries to navigate the lagers’ system and survive Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Yet, Kertész’s work is much more than a story of survival. It is a coming of age story that takes place in a period where coming of age for a Jewish boy was not the norm but an exception. It is a story of humanity’s ability to degrade and destroy one another, but it is also a story of humanity’s capacity to withstand degradation and dehumanization (Gyuri even tries to find “happiness” in the lager). As much as the book is about Hungarianness and Jewishness, it also has the universal theme of someone trying to make sense of the world around them. Kertész does it all with profound irony and in a style that I find hard to describe, thus I invite you to read this brilliant work.
László Nemes’s Son of Saul is a dramatic representation of the Holocaust, but done in a very different way. The main character Saul Ausländer—the role beautifully acted by Géza Röhrig—is a Hungarian Jew who is the member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. As part of this unit’s “job” Saul is forced to participate in the gassing process. His unit was responsible for collecting clothes, searching the bodies for hidden valuables, cleaning the chambers, and for disposing the remains. One day Saul came across a boy who he believed was his own son. The tragic and disturbing truth is that members of these Sonderkommandos did indeed come across their friends and family members while performing their “duties.” After this discovery, Saul’s single-minded goal was to have a funeral for the boy he believed to be his son. The camera follows his action. All the horrors of Auschwitz serve as a backdrop to his quest. While other camp members are seeking to organize a revolt—which ended up taking place on October 7, 1944—Saul is consumed by his pursuit for a Jewish funeral for the boy. This is a very unusual film with a dose of ambiguity that while to a certain degree decontextualizes the setting of Auschwitz; it certainly does not let the audience escape the horror and brutality. I would note that the first five to ten minutes of the film are one of the most devastating and disturbing cinematic representations of the Holocaust I have ever seen. Force yourself to watch on. You will see a personalized account of the Holocaust. It forces you to engage with the film in a way that makes you reimagine and rethink the reality of Auschwitz. I have seen many cinematic renderings of the Holocaust, but I have seen nothing like this before.
Representing the Holocaust in literature and cinema is not an easy task. As Primo Levi said, “our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness and László Nemes’s Son of Saul provide the tools to help us remember the Holocaust, commemorate its victims, and perhaps allow us to gain some understanding of it— though I do not think we can ever truly understand it.