Abstract >>

But if I must continue to write, to look, to frame, to photograph, to show my pictures and think of all this, it is precisely to render such an incomplete phrase. It should rather say “It is unimaginable, therefore, I must imagine, in spite of all.” – Georges Didi-Huberman1

A horror story, the face is a horror story – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari2

In August 2015, French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman wrote an open letter to Hungarian director, László Nemes:

Dear László Nemes,

Your film, Son of Saul, is a monster. A necessary, coherent, beneficial, innocent monster.3

What are we to make of these opening lines? How does one create a monster? Written in the immediate aftermath of Didi-Huberman’s viewing of the film, the letter is an intimate and emotional tribute to the director’s harrowing representation of extreme human misery set inside the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in 1944. Nemes adds his voice to a long and contested history of philosophical debates concerning the relationship between the Holocaust and the status of the cinematic image. How can cinema do justice to representing the Holocaust? What role can images play, without trivialising or sentimentalising an event that is located at the limit of representation? Against this hegemonic line of thought, the discourse emphasising Holocaust unrepresentability has drawn increasing scrutiny, with younger generations of philosophers such as Georges Didi-Huberman questioning the absolutism of the prohibition of representation. This article will argue that Saul Fia (Son of Saul, László Nemes, 2015) has developed explicitly in dialogue with French philosopher and art historian, Georges Didi-Huberman, a key thinker of images and author of Images malgré tout (Images in Spite of All). This article will proceed in two parts. The first will locate Son of Saul in terms of recent debates in France pertaining to the representation of the Holocaust. The second section examines how Nemes extends Didi-Huberman’s project, revealing through cinema an ongoing discussion in recent French intellectual history. What is at stake here is the capacity of images to provide access to the past.

How can cinema make history visible? Alternatively, how can images help us reimagine history? The Holocaust has traditionally been understood as sitting beyond the limits of representation, as “unimaginable” and therefore “unrepresentable”. This is a line of thought that can be traced from Theodor Adorno’s oft-cited warning not to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz, through to Jean-François Lyotard’s reading of the Kantian sublime and the Hebraic injunction against graven images.4 Libby Saxton has argued that questions pertaining to an ethics of representation have gained increasing momentum in recent years, as a diverse range of aesthetic responses have begun to emerge in Holocaust cinema.5 Winner of the 2015 Grand Prix at Cannes and Best Foreign Film at the 2016 Academy Awards, László Nemes debut feature film, Son of Saul (2015) delivers an important update to the history of Holocaust film. Like all filmmakers who have taken up the subject of the Holocaust, Nemes was confronted with the question of how cinema may best represent the enormity of the event, and film’s highly contested role as a witness to history. Cinematic responses have ranged from Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956), to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Unlike Resnais’ retrieval of archival film footage, or Lanzmann’s extraordinary commitment to testimony, Son of Saul signals an altogether different set of aesthetic choices. Nemes combines actual historical events with a fictional narrative, exploiting the tension between fiction and a Bazanian confidence in film’s indexicality. As Didi-Huberman puts it, “You have taken the risk of constructing a certain realism facing a historic reality often qualified as unimaginable.”6

Nemes’ film gives visibility to shadowy figures in the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau, euphemistically named “Special Squads” or Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando were groups of mainly Jewish prisoners charged with the day to day running of the crematoria. Their task was to maintain order amongst new arrivals, usher the prisoners into the change rooms and gas chambers, and deliver the bodies to the crematoria or the open cremating pyres. Later, they were to sort through their possessions, including separating the prisoners’ valuables, gold teeth, and jewellery. They also disposed of the human ashes as landfill or into the river, before the process was repeated. For Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, when writing on the subject of the Sonderkommando, the task assigned to history was therefore ethical: “One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one’s mind: this is a temptation one must resist.”7 Nemes takes this ethical responsibility of spectatorship, and makes it the subject of Son of Saul. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando (Fig.1). One day, while clearing the bodies from the gas chambers, Saul discovers a young boy, who somehow managed to survive, only to be suffocated by an SS doctor. His body, a curiosity, is sent away for an autopsy. In the face of such horror, Saul claims the boy as his son and plans a single act of redemption: to find a rabbi and give the boy a proper burial. The film follows Saul’s frenetic search for a rabbi over the course of one and one half days. Whether the child is indeed Saul’s is beside the point, as we will never know. If this is the main story line, there are other subnarratives that Saul encounters in his frantic search around the camp. The first shows Saul and a fellow Sonderkommando member furtively taking photographs from inside the crematoria of the burning bodies outside in the pits. The gas chambers provided relative shelter from the unyielding surveillance exerted by the SS. The second was the planning and subsequent uprising against the guards. Nemes blends fact and fiction, folding both historical incidents into the storyline.

Son of Saul

Figure 1: Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Saul’s search for a rabbi is an extraordinary act of resistance, based on a powerful paradox: the already dead are trying to save the already dead. In order to maintain absolute secrecy, the Sonderkommando were routinely liquidated.8 In the film, as desperate plans are formulated for an armed insurrection, lists are simultaneously being drawn up, nominating the “expendables”. When Abraham (Levente Molnár) bitterly accuses Saul of betraying the Sonderkommando by hiding the boy’s body in the sleeping barracks and placing the group at risk, Saul responds: “We are already dead.” To accentuate this point, Saul is rendered corpse-like, his gaunt face, affectless. It is this non-space between life and death, human and inhuman that Saul inhabits. Despite this, Saul is motivated by the very human desire to save the boy’s soul, and perhaps, even his own.

Son of Saul

Figure 2: Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Son of Saul was developed in dialogue with French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, one of the key thinkers of images in contemporary French art history and visual culture. Didi-Huberman’s reputation was forged in France in the 1990s with his ongoing revision of the discipline of art history and its normative practices.9 In the early 2000s, Didi-Huberman’s research project made a distinct turn, as his gaze shifted from issues pertaining to representation in Renaissance art, to Holocaust discourse and its trenchant distrust of images and their relationship to history. Fast forward fifteen years, and Didi-Huberman penned an open letter, Sortir du noir, to Nemes in the wake of viewing Son of Saul. This letter was quickly published by Les Éditions de Minuit in late 2015. Didi-Huberman provides a critical reading of the film, locating it in a literary and philosophical framework wholly committed to a broader rethinking of the visual legacy of the Holocaust.

Some of the most heated debates concerning images and the Holocaust have taken place in France. Philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Rancière have all, in various ways, questioned the prohibition of representation that has underpinned Holocaust discourse.10 As recent debates concerning representation no longer endorse the thesis of unrepresentability of the Nazi camps, Son of Saul is emblematic of this shift. In an interview with film critic Antoine de Baecque, Nemes declared his debt to Didi-Huberman’s 2003 book, Images malgré tout.

These four photographs deeply affected me. They attest to the extermination, they constitute evidence, and ask essential questions. What should be done with an image? What can it represent? What viewpoint should we have when faced with death and barbarity?11

The four photographs described by Nemes came to the fore in a photographic exhibition Mémoire des camps (Memories of the camps) held at the Hôtel de Sully in Paris in 2001.12 What makes the photographs remarkable, is they are the only images taken from inside the camps that document the mechanics of the mass extermination. Taken in August 1944 by a member of the Sonderkommando, the film was smuggled out of the camps in a tube of toothpaste, where it eventually reached the Polish resistance. Accompanying the exhibition was Didi-Huberman’s catalogue essay “Images malgré tout, translated as “Images in Spite of All”, where he carefully reconstructed the movements of the photographer, Greek prisoner “Alex”, as he surreptitiously recorded the open pyres where the bodies burned.13 Didi-Huberman’s essay marked a distinct turn in Holocaust discourse, because it questioned the line of thought that has rendered the Holocaust as “unimaginable”, “unknowable” and “unthinkable”. Awkwardly framed, blurry and out of focus, the four photographs are testimony produced within the event itself. The first two photographs were taken inside the gas chambers of members of the Sonderkommando managing the task of burning the bodies in outdoor funeral pyres. The first is blurry, slightly out of focus (Fig. 3). The second is clearer, as if the photographer momentarily forgot the extreme danger he had placed himself (Fig. 4). The next two images proved increasingly difficult to take. Having left the relative safety of the gas chambers, the photographer “snatches” the images, without having the time to focus the camera’s lens. In the third image in the sequence, it is possible to detect a group of women walking, truncated by the birch trees (Fig. 5). The final image is completely abstract (Fig. 6). These are the only existing photographs taken from inside the gas chambers documenting the procedure of mass extermination. The images exist, in spite of all attempts by the Nazis to eliminate all records.

Son of Saul

Son of Saul

Anonymous (member of the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz). Cremation of gassed bodies in the outdoor funeral pyres in front of the gas chambers. Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (negative nos. 282 and 281)

Son of Saul

Anonymous (member of the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz). Women walking towards the gas chamber. Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (negative no. 280)

Son of Saul

Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (negative no. 283)

Didi-Huberman’s catalogue essay begins provocatively with film director Claude Lanzmann clearly in his sights, writing, “In order to know, we must imagine for ourselves.”14 This amounts to a pointed and emphatic rejection of Lanzmann’s thesis that the Holocaust is unimaginable, therefore unpresentable. Lanzmann famously described his disavowal of archival images, because “images kill imagination.”15 In his ground-breaking nine-and-a-half-hour film Shoah (1985), Lanzmann eschewed all available archival material in favour of verbal testimony of survivors, perpetrators and witnesses who participated in the Holocaust. Lanzmann concisely summarised the challenge the Holocaust poses to representation, “That is the whole problem of the image, and the whole problem of representation. Nothing that had happened looked like this. Even if everything appears authentic.”16 Any attempt to represent the Holocaust will inevitably fail, by misrepresenting it. For Didi-Huberman, the terms of Lanzmann’s arguments had been largely left unexamined, hence explaining the mystical reverence for the film. Didi-Huberman cautions against the impulse of speaking in absolute terms as, “generally well intentioned, apparently philosophical, and actually lazy – “unsayable” and “unimaginable.”17 Against this normative tendency that has privileged testimony over images, he argues:

The four photographs snatched from Auschwitz by members of the Sonderkommando were also, therefore, four refutations snatched from a world that the Nazis wanted to obfuscate, to leave wordless and imageless.18

The controversy and passionate disputes that played out in French press and academic journals have been well documented.19 Didi-Huberman was accused of voyeurism, fetishism, and iconophilia.20 Nevertheless, the controversy marked an irrevocable turn in Holocaust discourse, with a younger generation of scholars and filmmakers increasingly questioning the injunction against Holocaust representation. If Lanzmann’s Shoah is the cinematographic reference point for the extermination of European Jews, Son of Saul signals a distinct update. Against Lanzmann’s privileging of the truth value assigned to testimony, Son of Saul is a hybrid cinematic form, blending fiction with real historical events. As Didi-Huberman demonstrates in Images in Spite of All, the four photographs snatched by Alex in August 1944 cannot tell us the “entire” or absolute truth of the Holocaust. This is to ask too much from the image. Nevertheless, as Didi-Huberman claims, there is a truth value ascribed to the photographs. “But they are for us – for our eyes today – truth itself, meaning its vestige, its meagre shreds: what remains, visually, of Auschwitz.”21 An image may be incapable of telling the whole and absolute truth of the gas chambers. It can, however, reveal a partial truth, a fragmented truth, but a truth, nevertheless. In Son of Saul, Nemes recreates the actual historical event of Alex taking the photographs. Saul and another inmate, posing as locksmiths, sought to photograph the pits of burning bodies from the shelter of an adjacent shed (Fig. 7). Of this moment, Nemes observes:

We integrated this moment into the heart of the film, as it corresponds to a segment of Saul’s journey through the camp when suddenly, just for a moment, he participates in the construction of our view of the extermination. And also, because of the representation of the image within itself, we are, at that point and only then, questioning the very status of representation.22

Son of Saul

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Didi-Huberman’s essay recreated the phenomenological experience of Alex, seeking to restore agency to the inmate who risked his life to take the photographs. The photographer’s clandestine movement past the crematorium pits that resulted in the blurred, out of focus shots, is a visual record of the inherent difficulty of capturing an image without detection from the guards. Didi-Huberman argues, “It is simply not possible to take out the camera, even less possible to aim it. The ‘unknown photographer’ takes two snapshots, furtively, without looking, perhaps even while walking.”23 Nemes has integrated this turbulent and frenetic camerawork into the logic of the film. The indistinct blur leads Didi-Huberman to describe the image as a “panic image”. Didi-Huberman writes, “This panic image is a visual vehicle of fear.”24 The camera’s movements, as we closely follow Saul, follow the fear. This is not the panopticon gaze of Jeremy Bentham’s all seeing, all pervasive surveillance of the SS from their watchtowers. Instead, it is the panicked and clandestine glance stolen by a prisoner, furtively searching for a rabbi in amongst the chaos of the camps. As a result, Son of Saul is physically difficult to watch. This is Nemes’ point: it is our ethical responsibility not to avert our gaze from the unfolding horror. Furthermore, it reminds us of Didi-Huberman’s plea not to look away: “It is a response that we must offer, as a debt to the words and images that certain prisoners snatched, for us, from the harrowing Real of their experience.”25 At the heart of Didi-Huberman’s text is an ethics of spectatorship. Nemes structures this ethics into the logic of the camerawork itself. The lack of respite is agonising, with Nemes never relinquishing his tightly held control of the spectator’s gaze.

Following cinematic convention, the opening sequence of Son of Saul begins with a long shot. It is a long shot, however, with a crucial difference: rather than setting the scene and orientating the spectator, the image does exactly the opposite. The image is completely blurred, out of focus, and refuses to coherently resolve (Fig.8). Birds tweeting and the wash of green cues the spectator that the scene is set in a countryside. Gradually, out of the blur, appears a human silhouette, followed by three others. The figure slowly comes into focus, and we are introduced to Saul Ausländer. Acutely rendered in the camera’s close up, Saul stands in stark contrast to the blurred green backdrop. We are left to study the details of his face: his stubble, a lesion on his bottom lip, flecks of grey in his dark hair. Saul’s face remains expressionless. Again, the background sound functions to provide vital cues: new prisoners have arrived. A cacophony of voices, noises, whistles, languages, and the ominous barking of guard dogs. The camera remains tightly focused on Saul’s face, which is impassively neutral and gives the prisoners no clue as to their fate. His eyes remain averted, and his actual physical contact with the prisoners is minimal. Saul and the other Sonderkommando members usher the prisoners into the change rooms, and finally into the gas chambers, where they are promised a shower, followed by warm soup. Occasionally, a face will come into perspective, but it is only ever momentary, and it quickly disappears, falling away from the camera’s relentless focus on Saul.

Son of Saul

Figure 8: Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Son of Saul is organised in long sequence shots, combined with Nemes’s persistent use of the close up. We are left to concentrate on the subtlest of Saul’s facial expressions. Tiny, virtually imperceptible movements become events in the landscape of Saul’s face. Frequently, the hand held camera is located at the back of Saul’s head as he navigates through the labyrinthine of corridors and chambers. The effect is startling, as the extreme proximity places the spectator into the scene itself. We go where Saul goes. The camera’s tight framing, combined with the agonising length between cuts, provides the spectator with no visual respite. There are no horizons here to seek solace and rest one’s gaze. The extreme shallow depth of field positions Saul at the centre of this chaotic universe. As Saul moves through the gas chambers, the spectator is aware that piles of dead bodies lie on the boundaries of the camera’s frame. Nemes solicits our voyeuristic desire to look, only to frustrate it, by leaving the bodies abstracted, blurred and out of focus. The spectator’s desire to assume mastery of the scene is denied by the blurring effect. Thwarted, the spectator’s gaze is returned to the figure of Saul, whose face remains startlingly clear in the close up. Didi-Huberman measures this shallow depth of field in tactile terms. “The image that leaves the dark”, he writes,

is characterised by its own tactile limits: where it appears clearly, the thickness—the depth of field—is tiny. The area of sharpness is like a blade: it is a cut in visible space, but its effective space, the space of the cut, is extremely thin. Indeed, the horror cuts sharply.26

The visual instability created between the detail of the close up and the indistinct blur on the periphery of the shot is deployed constantly throughout the film. In this way, Nemes carefully navigates within the camera’s frame a tension between realism and abstraction. The spectator knows the people, bodies, and fellow inmates are there, but is unable to properly visually grasp, leaving the scopic field as incoherent and indistinct. As a result, our imagination must fill the gaps. Unlike Lanzmann’s criticism of an “image without imagination”, imagination is not understood here as reproductive, or an inferior copy. Instead, imagination is productive. It is in these blurs and absences where something new is created.

It is worth pausing to consider the title of Didi-Huberman’s text, Sortir du noir, which translates into English as “leave the dark”. In an interview with Antoine de Baecque, Nemes described Auschwitz as a type of “black hole” in his family’s history:

A part of my family was assassinated in Auschwitz. It was something we talked about every day. When I was little, I had the impression that “evil had been done.” I imagined it like a black hole burrowed within us; something had broken, and my inability to grasp exactly what it was kept me isolated.27

Didi-Huberman takes Nemes’ statement seriously, arguing he has done exactly the very opposite. The “black hole” becomes a key operative metaphor in Didi-Huberman’s letter to Nemes, as images of dark and light pervade the text. The gas chamber, for instance, is reimagined, as a type of dark room. The inmate hides inside the covert darkness and cover offered by the gas chambers, and taking pictures outside of the burning bodies in a pit. Importantly, Didi-Huberman builds a bridge back to Adorno’s image of darkness as a necessary precondition for contemporary art. Adorno famously expressed his preference for aesthetic disengagement and withdrawal. Didi-Huberman draws on a passage from Aesthetic Theory, where Adorno described an aesthetic of darkness as a necessary response to the aftermath of the horrors of World War Two. Adorno writes:

To survive reality at its most extreme and grim, artworks that do not want to sell themselves as consolation must equate themselves with that reality. Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary color is black…The ideal of blackness with regard to content is one of the deepest impulses of abstraction.28

Against an aesthetic of darkness, Didi-Huberman argues the film has left the dark. Didi-Huberman writes, “But you, dear László Nemes, you have chosen not the radical black or the radical silence. Your film is terribly impure, sonorous, and coloured… You have therefore not forgotten the dark. But instead you have taken it out of its abstraction.”29 The hell Nemes has created is a noisy, coloured hell. Splashes of colour explode from the indistinct blur: the red cross on the back of Saul’s jacket, marking his status as a Sonderkommando member; the victim’s blood after the gassing, the grey of the smoke emerging from the human ashes; and the film’s opening and closing scenes that are bathed in the vibrant green of the birch forest. The extraordinary soundscape is a richly layered melee of languages, screams for help, and the ever-present rumbling of the crematoria.

Like Nemes, Didi-Huberman lost members of his family in the Holocaust, and he has returned to the question of Holocaust representation in an ongoing series of articles and essays since the 2001 exhibition. Écorces is highly personal photo-essay documenting a trip Didi-Huberman made to Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 2011. The title of the small text is derived from three fragments of bark taken by Didi-Huberman from the distinctive birch trees that surround the camps, the same trees that bore witness to the camp’s atrocities sixty years earlier. Nineteen photographs are reproduced in the book, each accompanied with Didi-Huberman’s observations. The notion of imagination returns here, as Didi-Huberman continues an ongoing dialogue with Claude Lanzmann. This time, it is Didi-Huberman’s own imagination that comes to the fore, as he records his observations during his stroll (déambulation) around the camps. One of Didi-Huberman’s photographs is an image of the birch trees that create a limit of the horizon. Distinguished by strong horizontals, heavy clouds intersect with the distant birch forest. Quietly sitting to the right is a single watchtower. Didi-Huberman asks, “What is a horizon at Birkenau? What is a horizon in this space conceived to break all hope?”30 The trees that form the horizon, reappear in the film, reinforcing the prisoner’s sense of confinement. “It is a lying horizon.”31 In Son of Saul, the birch forest is both a natural barrier as well as camouflage and Nemes exploits the lack of horizon to reinforce the film’s intense sense of claustrophobia.

In Sortir du noir, Didi-Huberman suggests the film inaugurates a new genre of “documentary fable” (conte documentaire). To do this, Didi-Huberman draws on two interconnected strains in Walter Benjamin’s writing in the 1930s. The first strain positions Son of Saul as a literary montage. Benjamin was deeply interested in the radical possibilities of montage for literature. For Benjamin, the montage technique derived from Dada artistic practices signalled the invention of a new “epic” form of literature. In his 1930 essay, “The Crisis of the Novel”, Benjamin enthusiastically wrote, “The montage explodes the framework of the novel, bursts its limits both stylistically and structurally, and clears the way for new, epic possibilities.”32 Didi-Huberman observes that in Son of Saul, fragments of ancient fables are woven together, creating a new documentary genre of storytelling. The film is a cinematic fable, drawing on ancient literary traditions and deeply engrained in mythology and oral legends. Take, for example, Saul’s travels through the camp’s hell, the labyrinth of change rooms, gas chambers, barracks and crematoriums. Saul becomes an Orpheus-like figure, voyaging through the underworld to save Eurydice. Like Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to meet Hades, Saul confronts the space of death that is Auschwitz-Birkenau. Like Orpheus, Saul seeks to exit the dark with his beloved. Like Orpheus, his journey is condemned from the outset (“we are already dead”).

Or else consider the final escape sequence, where the boy’s body slips from Saul’s grasp during the river crossing in the flight from the SS troops (Fig.9). We are presented with a cruel inversion of one of the foundational stories in the history of Judaism, the story of Moses. Recall from the Book of Exodus, the pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew children should be drowned. Moses was set adrift on the Nile, to be rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter, and raised as an Egyptian prince. Unlike the boy, Moses survives, to eventually lead the Israelites in the flight from slavery. Didi-Huberman detects a montage impulse in the collision of Greek myths, and stories from the Hebrew Bible. Didi-Huberman’s letter to Nemes concludes with the observation that the film is “drawing its logic from literary traditions very old and very modern.”33 Ancient fables and stories survive, juxtaposed to create new narrative forms.

Son of Saul

Figure 9: Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

The second strain is Benjamin’s lament for the dying tradition of storytelling. In his 1936 essay, “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, Benjamin argued that crucial to the art of storytelling was the communication of shared experience. Benjamin recognised that soldiers returning from World War One struggled to find appropriate language and audiences to communicate their experiences. Arriving home from the battlefields, they found a new, modern world of mass media and information that placed no value on older, oral forms of communication passed down by storytellers. Against the isolation of the novelist, and the ephemeral, limited value of news information, the storyteller takes his material from experience, and shares this with his listeners. The story is in turn internalised by the audience, becoming a collective, shared experience. Benjamin writes, “The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.”34 Storytelling, for Benjamin, is the craft of imparting knowledge and wisdom, and passing this on through the generations. It would be a mistake to measure Son of Saul in terms of its documentary accuracy. It is, as Didi-Huberman suggests, a documentary fable, as ancient as the stories of Orpheus and Moses. Nemes is our storyteller, a chronicler of experiences. He passes these experiences to us, and Nemes’ narrative becomes our narrative, our own shared experience.

The relationship between cinema and the Holocaust has a long and vexed history. By making the Sonderkommando and the gas chambers the subject of Son of Saul, Nemes delivers a significant update to this history. Son of Saul firmly eschews the notion of aesthetic withdrawal as an appropriate response to the Holocaust. Against Lanzmann’s privileging of word and testimony over images, Nemes reverses this, firmly placing the image, and its claims to historical truth and veracity at the centre of his enquiry. The dialogue that has developed between Didi-Huberman and Nemes reminds us that the four photographs snatched by Alex in August 1944 present an ongoing, living legacy. Nemes is thinking through arguments presented by Didi-Huberman in cinema itself. This is not a mere illustration, but an integration of an ethics of spectatorship into the film’s form. Nemes’ demands on the spectator are high: do not avert your gaze; to look away is to surrender your ethical responsibility to look, and to imagine.

This article has been peer reviewed.


ABSTRACT: This article locates László Nemes’s Son of Saul in respect to broader European discourse concerning the ethics of Holocaust representation. The film provides an extraordinary update to a long tradition in European philosophy and filmmaking that has questioned the ethics of Holocaust representation. French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard have suggested that cinema has long neglected its moral and ethical duty to testify to the existence of Nazi death camps. Son of Saul is compared with other Holocaust representational strategies, in particular Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). In interviews, Nemes has consistently emphasised his intellectual debt to French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman. These comments are contextualised in respect to very public philosophical debates that took place in France during the 2000s. The discourse emphasising Holocaust ineffability has come increasingly under scrutiny, with younger generations of philosophers such as Didi-Huberman urging for the necessity of the imagination in reconstructing Holocaust representation. This article argues that Nemes’s film is the first feature film to explicitly respond to Didi-Huberman’s arguments.



  1. Georges Didi-Huberman, Écorces (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2011), p.30. My translation.
  2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minn.: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987), p.168.
  3. Georges Didi-Huberman, Sortir du noir (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2015), p.7. My translation.
  4. Theodor Adorno, Prisms trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981); Jean François Lyotard. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
  5. Libby Saxton, Haunted Images: Film, Ethics, Testimony and the Holocaust (London and New York: Wallflower Press 2008).
  6. Didi-Huberman, Sortir du noir, p.25. My translation.
  7. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Penguin, 1988), p.37.
  8. See Adam Brown, Judging ‘Privileged’ Jews: Holocaust Ethics, Representation, and the ‘Grey Zone’ (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013). For a historiographical overview of Auschwitz Sonderkommando, see Isabel Wollaston, “Emerging from the Shadows? The Auschwitz Sonderkommando and the ‘Four Women’ in History and Memory,” Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, 20, no. 3 (2014).
  9. See, for instance, Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, trans. John Goodman (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).
  10. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999). Jean-Luc Nancy, “Forbidden Representation,” in The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); Jacques Rancière, “Are Some Things Unrepresentable? ,” in The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliot (London and New York: Verso, 2007).)
  11. Antoine de Baecque, “Interview with László Nemes”, Son of Saul, Paris, Rendez Vous (2015).
  12. Clément Chéroux, ed. Mémoire des camps: photographies des camps de concentration et d’extermination nazis, 1933-1999 (Paris: Marval, 2001).
  13. The original catalogue essay was expanded to a book Images malgré tout (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2003) and translated into English as Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. Shane B. Lillis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).
  14. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All. p.3.
  15. Claude Lanzmann, “Holocauste, la répresentation impossible” Le Monde, March 3, 1994, p.vii. My translation.
  16. Ibid. p.vii. My translation.
  17. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, 25.
  18. Ibid., p.20.
  19. On the polemic, see Bruno Chaouat, “In the Image of Auschwitz,” Diacritics 36, no. 1 (2007), Sven-Erik Rose, “Auschwitz as Hermeneutic Rupture, Differend, and Image malgré tout: Jameson, Lyotard, Didi-Huberman.” In Visualising the Holocaust, ed. David Bathrick, Brad Prager and Michael David Richardson (Rochester: Camden House, 2008).
  20. In particular, see Gérard Wajcman, “De la croyance photographique,” Les Temps modernes, 613 (2001) and Elizabeth Pagnoux, “Reporter photographe à Auschwitz.” Les Temps modernes, 613 (2001).
  21. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, p.38.
  22. Antoine de Baecque, “Interview with László Nemes”, Son of Saul, Paris, Rendez Vous, 2015.
  23. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, p.16.
  24. Didi-Huberman, Sortir du noir, p.30. My translation.
  25. Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, p.3.
  26. Didi-Huberman, Sortir du noir, p.p.29-30. My translation.
  27. Antoine de Baecque, “Interview with László Nemes”, Son of Saul, Paris, Rendez Vous, 2015.
  28. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), p.p.39-40.
  29. Didi-Huberman, Sortir du noir, p.p.15-16. My translation.
  30. Didi-Huberman, Écorces, p.34. My translation.
  31. Ibid. My translation.
  32. Walter Benjamin, “The Crisis of the Novel,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1999),p.301.
  33. Didi-Huberman, Sortir du noir, p.49. My translation.
  34. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol 3, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002), p.146.