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Act of moral redemption

29 April 2016

Stephen Brown sees the Oscar-winning film Son of Saul

Holocaust in close-up: the film Son of Saul provides glimpses of life in a concentration camp, and lets the imagination do the rest

Holocaust in close-up: the film Son of Saul provides glimpses of life in a concentration camp, and lets the imagination do the rest

“EVEN in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human.” So said the Hungarian director László Nemes in his acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars for the film Son of Saul, now on release (Cert. 15).

It’s a hard watch or, more to the point, a hard listen, as we hear rather than see. Tight close-ups provide only glimpses of a Nazi extermination camp (probably Auschwitz-Birkenau), whereas inhabitants’ agonising cries give full rein to our imaginations by virtue of brilliant sound design from Tamás Zányi. Remaining human in such circumstances? Aye, there’s the rub.

Saul (Géza Röhrig) struggles with this. He’s a Sonderkommando, one of a team of Jews supervising the slaughter of fellow prisoners. But it’s the very impassivity of his face during these operations which betrays the inner anguish he is experiencing.

The Soviet Army’s advances in the last stages of the Second World War only accelerate Germany’s determination to implement a final solution to “the Jewish question”, a term originally coined by the theologian Bruno Bauer (1809-82) and pressed into service by the Nazis.

One of the Sonderkommandos’ tasks was to assist with dispatch of corpses. Saul discovers that a young boy has survived the gas chamber but is killed soon after. He believes him to be his son. The film concentrates on Saul’s attempts to find a rabbi to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, a sanctification of God’s name before burial.

Son of Saul isn’t fashioned along the lines of a Hollywood adventure story, one where the hero against all odds triumphs over enemies. It is a monumental challenge trying to conceal the boy, dig a grave, and find a rabbi. When a prisoner accuses Saul of failing the living for the dead, he retorts: “We’re already dead.” In the midst of life, victims and staff are in effect breathing in death itself, as the film’s ash-laden atmosphere reminds us.

The quest to give the child an honourable burial becomes the something that has meaning in a world gone bad. One is reminded of other instances where this becomes the prime object. For Antigone, Joseph of Arimathea, and even Mr Badii in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film Taste of Cherry, there’s a determination to secure an appropriate resting-place for one recently departed. Saul brings an added poignancy by insisting on hearing the Mourners’ Kaddish recited: a text that includes words of hope: “May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel.”

Saul, operating at the very heart of evil, needs someone with divine authority to perform this age-old, sacred liturgy of God’s Chosen People. More than that, he wishes to give the dead boy (whom, Saul claims, was born to someone not his wife) a rightful place within the bosom of his family. The efforts to bury him are dangerous and costly. For Saul, it is an act of redemption, colluder as he is with the death of so many of his Jewish compatriots. In pursuing it, he finds that inner voice that reconnects him with humanity.


ASKING a teacher if Jesus had an influence on Martin Luther King surely invites a no-brainer response; the kind you would give to someone wondering if God held any sway over Moses. This, according to the film God’s Not Dead 2 (Cert. PG), is an indictable offence in parts, if not all, of the United States.

It hardly feels credible in the land of the free that Grace (Melissa Joan Hart, after playing a teenage witch) is a Christian facing trial. The film’s producers (which include Pure Films and Believe Entertainment) start with the premise that Christians are under siege from a hostile atheistic culture. This notion requires an outstanding leap of faith by viewers, given how influential conservative Christianity is in American society.

Debates over school prayers may linger on, but this situation is quite different. Unfortunately, the rest of the film suffers from a lasting whiff of Religious Right paranoia. All that Grace does is provide, in a history lesson, some of King’s scriptural justification for the stance he took over civil rights. Tom (Jesse Metcalfe) is a rookie defence lawyer pitted against Ray Wise’s brimstone-and-treacle veteran prosecutor, Kane.

The film, mercifully, is partially redeemed by other factors. Pat Boone is a twinkly, ailing grandfather more committed here to friendly persuasion than the vitriolic conservative he is in real-life, one who describes liberalism as malignant cells. He gets some of the best lines, such as “Atheism doesn’t take away any pain, only hope.” Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), one of Grace’s students, adopts the Christian beliefs of her deceased brother. This new-found faith gives Brooke courage to oppose her parents, who are instrumental in seeking Grace’s prosecution. Amy (Trisha LaFache), in remission from cancer, also finds the Lord.

The film’s lack of subtlety turns the likes of David White as Pastor Dave into a Revd Gary Grinner of a figure. There is more chance of being struck by lightning than getting selected for jury service, he says. Bang on cue, there’s a crash of thunder as he is nominated.

When not in court, a would-be Christian, Yip (Paul Kwo), poses dozens of questions to Dave, but nothing fazes Dave; nor, for that matter, does it Grace. When Brooke asks (off-campus) how she does that, she answers “Jesus.”

Would that it were so simple. Or, rather, why aren’t we given any indications of how these people of faith deal so amicably with life’s awkward issues, ones where there is genuine debate and disagreement among Christians?

The fact is that they are never discussed. If the film is intended as a polemic, it fails. At best, it relies on the dictum that Christianity is caught, not taught. People who yearn for certainty might be attracted by, or envious of, these believers without a whisper of doubt, and whose reward seems to be living in very nice houses.

God’s Not Dead 2 is a sequel, one made on the back of a commercial, if not critical, success. Films like this alongside the Apocalypse series and Left Behind clearly have their following. I fear this one will, too.

On current release

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