The off-screen and that which surpasses all understanding: Witnessing László Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015)

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Except for a two-minute film shot by a German naval sergeant in August 1941, no filmic representation of the extermination of almost six million Jews during the Holocaust exists. Although we have several eyewitness accounts and footage of liberated concentration camps, knowledge of the Holocaust is transmitted today primarily through fictional representations of TV shows such as Holocaust (1973) and films such as Schindler’s list (1993) (Insdorf 2003:xviii). Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann, among others, criticise these representations and argue that the Holocaust is an ontological phenomenon that is “located beyond understanding” (Wiesel in Insdorf 2003:xviii) and that there should be a “ban on [its] depiction” (Lanzmann 1994). Nevertheless, due to growing scepticism regarding its representability, the ubiquity of the media, the proliferating representations of the Holocaust and the pedagogical influence thereof, the question has shifted from “whether the event could or should be represented to the question of how it might adequately or responsibly be represented” (Saxton 2008:2).

In 2015, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes entered the contentious arena of representing the Holocaust when his film Son of Saul (2015) won the Grand Prix at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. Son of Saul tells the story of a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz who tries to find a rabbi in order to bury a dead boy. Since classical realism refers to an “excessively obvious cinema” (Bordwell et al. 1985:1) that divides the narrative in an “order/disorder/order-restored” triad and is driven by the main character (Hayward 2013:80), Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer adhere to a narrative structure that contains the “basic outline of the universal mythological formula of the adventure of the hero” (Campbell 2004:20). What distinguishes Son of Saul from other mainstream Holocaust films, however, is how Nemes juxtaposes the film’s content with its form. Nemes opts for a modernist form of representation that rejects an omnipresent point of view and, instead, limits the film’s scope to Saul’s perspective. I argue that by representing the unrepresentable extermination of the Jews through the use of the off-screen space and sound, Nemes puts the audience’s imagination to the test and, as a result, that which should be imagined becomes unimaginable.

Nemes therefore makes his audience aware that the Holocaust is an unfamiliar event that exceeds their understanding. The unfamiliarity of the Holocaust, however, can be experienced only if the audience recognises it as such. How do we recognise something that is unfamiliar? Oliver (2001:9) argues that one’s recognition falls short when one is confronted with an experience that falls outside one’s own lived experience, because recognition requires that otherness assimilates into something familiar and, as a result, something recognisable. Oliver therefore argues that ethics requires us to move beyond recognition and, as an alternative, to enable the possibility of witnessing.

In this essay I therefore argue that Nemes’s technical approach aims to represent Son of Saul in the form of a testimony, which, as a result, encourages the audience to become mediated witnesses. My discussion of Son of Saul follows the course of the narrative. First I explore Nemes’s technical approach through the lens of Noël Burch’s film theory on the off-screen space, as well as Jean Luc Nancy’s theory of listening. After mapping the ways in which Nemes uses the off-screen space and sound to encourage audiences to participate and to imagine the unimaginable, I turn to the work by Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub and Kelly Oliver on testimony and witnessing. Since witnessing relies on both our ability to be addressed (address-ability) and our ability to respond (response-ability) to the address (Oliver 2001:7), I argue that Nemes has a responsibility to address his audience in such a way that they are encouraged to respond to the testimony of Son of Saul.

When one is confronted by a testimony of the Holocaust, however, one is faced with the inexorable and unavoidable existential questions of death and the meaning of life (Felman and Laub 1992:72). Viktor Frankl (2007:122), a Holocaust survivor, writes that we have to bear our incapacity to grasp the meaning of life in rational terms. We can only, instead, answer the question of our life by being responsible (2007:113–4). In a similar way, I conclude the essay with the final transcendental moments of Son of Saul by arguing that, unlike passive spectators, the audience is encouraged to move beyond recognition to something that can neither be seen nor described, but rather to take responsibility for that which surpasses all understanding.

Keywords: Shoshana Felman; Holocaust; Dori Laub; László Nemes; Kelly Oliver; responsibility; Son of Saul; Sonderkommando; transcendence; witnessing


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Die buiteskerm en dit wat die verstand te bowe gaan: Die getuienis van László Nemes se Son of Saul (2015)

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