When I asked my 16-year-old sister if she wanted to see “Son of Saul” last Friday night, she expressed a great interest. She had never heard of the film, but had overheard me talking about it a little, so she knew at least that it was a Holocaust film. I thought it only fair to warn her that this film a) was European (therefore in subtitles and highly character driven) and b) takes the viewer into the heart of a death camp; there would be, in short, some disturbing content. She was undeterred.

As we watched the film, I repeatedly saw her shaken expression, her hands often covering her mouth in terror. And when we left, she was expressionless, almost catatonic, in her demeanor. I never asked her what she thought of the film as a whole, but I know she found it distressing.

I didn’t find the film so shocking, and was more surprised by how little death I actually saw given the setting. For almost the entirety of the film, the camera never leaves the protagonist Saul’s face or back as he navigates the seemingly labyrinthine halls of the death camp. In fact, almost everything in the shot other than Saul’s face or back remains out of focus and distant. We are maddeningly aware that there’s more happening in the scene, but we can’t actually see it — like a flicker in the corner of the eye, but with the turn of the head, the apparition vanishes.

We therefore experience the entirety of the death camp through Saul, and there is no shortage of horror to be found; we are with him when he leans against the metal door of the gas chamber and hears the desperate screams of hundreds, only for the noise to suddenly cease; we are with him at the pits as Jews are led like lambs to the slaughter, one by one lined up, pushed to the edge of the pit and executed with a bullet to the head; we are with him as he fires the scorching ovens.

And yet I was not disturbed, nor was I moved by Saul’s lack of perspective as he searches for a rabbi to provide a proper burial for a boy he believes, though is probably not, his illegitimate son, rather than commit himself to the final preparations for a prisoner uprising. Some might call my stoicism inhuman.

I don’t believe I’m inhuman, but I have been desensitized. I’ve seen many, many Holocaust films, and, having been raised in a Jewish home and having gone to Jewish day school for nine years, I have no shortage of vivid images of Holocaust-related material and memory. After a while, these images and horrors stopped being horrifying — they just became facts, cold and nonjudgmental.

Of course, “Son of Saul” wasn’t made solely for me. But I ask myself why I so desire to see films like these, films that display human suffering in all its terror, where there is only one possible ending — death — and I am rather unmoved by it. Indeed, “Son of Saul” seems to offer no lessons, no reason to exist beyond portraying a more personal take on the otherwise grander scale that is most other Holocaust films — human suffering through one viewpoint, one angle, rather than many.

Is that enough of a reason for a film to exist? Is guilt over the Holocaust so high that any film that explores the subject gets an automatic pass for a dearth of content? If I want a film that depicts mass death, why can’t I cut out all Holocaust-related material and go see “Deadpool” instead? At least then I can laugh at the absurdity of it all, rather than sitting with resignation.

In fact, I did go see “Deadpool,” 17 hours after I saw “Son of Saul,” and, to my surprise, I found similarities in their stories. At their cores, both are stories of an individual coping with trauma: one seeks distraction from the horror of his daily life, the other seeks full-scale, bloody revenge — both seem to me highly irresponsible courses of action. And as its cocksure, self-aware attitude reiterates over and over again, “Deadpool” also has no reason to exist. It is the product of a moneymaking Hollywood machine: no more, no less.

But “Deadpool” is escapism where “Son of Saul” grounds itself in reality, a past reality but reality nonetheless. There are no alternate timelines and no reset buttons for “Son of Saul” and the Holocaust genre as a whole (unless you’re “Inglourious Basterds,” but that’s another story altogether). It is, ultimately, just a horrid chapter among the other many horrid chapters of a long human history.

Perhaps it is guilt that drives our fascination with the Holocaust (particularly in Europe), perhaps it’s a function of the “never forget” ideology passed down through the generations. Perhaps we cling to the glimmers of hope and escape, as one might do with the case of Saul, in an otherwise dark and twisted world. Or perhaps it’s that human suffering is itself fascinating, and the Holocaust represents the apex of that suffering.

I do not know the answer but I do know this: for as much as we research it, write about it, create films related to/about it, the Holocaust is out of our reach of understanding. The only ones that really understand it are those that suffered through it, and even they may not have come to terms with it. And for as many films and stories as there are about a hero, a savior, a do-gooder, those stories comprise a small minority that can never hope to relate the experience.

I think, therefore, “Son of Saul” is the best type of Holocaust film, the one that says nothing, that seems to have no reason to exist. In its silence, its frustratingly close camera angles, its out of focus middle and backgrounds, we are forced to accept that the Holocaust is beyond us.

The point, then, is not necessarily to feel or to relate, because we simply cannot feel and relate to this chapter of history in a way that would ever prove satisfactory. The point is to go to the theater, to submit yourself to more death without purpose, to know that you could go see “Deadpool” instead. Sometimes, it’s acceptable to just watch and be present and to know that what you’re watching is a Holocaust film. In the end, that’s all we can really do.

 

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