Son of Saul, László Nemes, 2015
“You failed the living for the dead.”
Since the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, filmmakers have tried to make sense of its atrocities. These remembrances of the monstrous destruction of millions of people serves to help us understand humanity at its darkest, and offers us a sense of moral guidance moving into the future. Film at its best can act, as Roger Ebert puts it, as an “empathy machine”, heightening our awareness of the suffering of others, and thereby galvanising us to act against suffering in the world around us.
László Nemes’ Son of Saul is no different. The camera remains focused throughout on the titular protagonist Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), and the audience is forced to stare at his impenetrable stoicism, projecting ourselves onto the screen. Saul’s mission throughout the film is to find a rabbi to help him bury the body of a boy he takes to be his son. But he must do this surrounded by a barrage of requests from revolutionary Sonderkommandos, the uncaring violence and mockery of the Nazi officers, and the constant ghosts of the dead, their bodies lurking out of focus in the back of the shot.
Saul’s mission is one of focused duty in the face of absurd odds. His drive to bury the child, drawing deliberate parallels with Sophocles’ Antigone, seems ludicrous to us. He is going against all instincts, both moral and survival, that we have in order to preserve something that is already gone. This steadfast commitment to a sense of duty, much like with Antigone, causes tensions with those around him, and draws risk from the governing authorities. Yet still he persists.
Duty is one of the most important concepts in the history of normative ethics. Generally speaking, ethical theories can be divided into two camps. Relativistic theories that allow for each given moral situation to be judged individually, occasionally allowing us to break the rules in order for a more moral outcome; and deontological theories, ones where we have a duty to follow a certain set of moral laws, no matter the outcome.
One of the most famous deontological theories was formulated by Immanuel Kant in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Kant believed that there is only one thing that is morally intrinsically good, and that is to have a good will. That is to say, we must act out of a sense of duty to upholding certain maxims or rules. If we break from this, even in order to save lives, we are acting immorally. There are certain things that are just right and wrong, and will always be so, no matter the situation.
This appeal to duty (or for Kant, pflicht) is apparent in Saul’s approach to his life. He regularly risks his own lives and those of others in order to inter the child, possibly driven by a sense of religiosity, but more likely driven by a guilt that he did not keep his child alive. Either way, this duty becomes an obsession for him, and takes precedence over everything else, including a sense of camaraderie to his fellow prisoners.
This seems contrary to the way many of us would approach the same situation. As an audience it is difficult to side with Saul. His high risk actions and ethical egoism seem to fly in the face of a sense of the common good. Surely it is permissible to abandon our duties (religious or otherwise) in some circumstances in order to preserve the lives of others?
Kant asks us to imagine an axe murderer chasing a person down a road. You see where the hunted goes, and the axe murderer stops and asks you if you know where they went. Most people would suggest that in this case it is okay to lie, as in doing so you can potentially save someone’s life. Kant argues that in fact in this case you should still tell the truth. This is because you have an imperative to honesty. We should respect the murderer as much as the hunted, and allow her the freedom to choose her own ends.
So can a similar accession be made to the passionate quest of Saul? Does his duty to bury a child fit with Kant’s categorical imperative (the rule by which all actions are judged)?
Kant asserts three principles that define the categorical imperative. Firstly, one must only act in such a way that one would be happy if it became a universal law by which everyone acts. Secondly, one should not see other humans as merely a means to an end, but as an end in themselves, and thirdly, one must consider oneself lawmaker, and only act in a way that a community of rational people would consider to be moral.
So how does this apply to Saul? Well, it is unclear whether he would be happy if everyone else were to risk his life in order to bury a dead child, but his determination suggests that holding onto this hope is more fundamental than holding onto survival. Indeed at one point a fellow prisoner remarks that Saul and his Rabbi will get them all killed, to which Saul replies “we are already dead.” He is aware of the fact that they will be killed soon anyway, and as such sees his devotion to his religion as more important than his own immediate survival. Perhaps he would assume the same from others.
What about treating people as a means to an end? Well, this is something that every character in the film does, whether it is the Sonderkommandos using each other to preserve their own lives, or Saul himself casting people aside when it transpires they cannot help him achieve his goals. This is one of the most stark facts about the holocaust presented in the film. When in the camps, people were driven to their most primal selfish instincts.
And what of the community of rational individuals that Kant wants us to act in? Well, Saul’s individualism is the antithesis of such thinking. For large stretches of the film, Saul’s face is the only one in focus, starkly highlighting his singular devotion and lack support to his community. He rarely shows any emotional response to the suffering of others. It is perhaps unfair to say this is due to his own inherent selfishness, most likely being a nihilistic response to the horror surrounding him, but nonetheless it shows that he is not considering a sense of socially based duty.
Son of Saul has an interesting point to make about morality, or lack thereof. Saul does not embody the Kantian pflicht, but rather a dogged determination that flies in the face of moral reasoning. He has lost all sense of rationality, honour and compassion, and has been driven to a kind of insanity by his surroundings and his grief in the certainty of suffering. War has made a beast of him, like it makes beasts of all men, and morality has abandoned them all.