Kierkegaard appears unexpectedly on the “Opinionator” page of last week’s New York Times. He’s discussed in “The Stone” by a canny and sensitive philosopher, Katalin Balog. She finds the Danish thinker just under the surface of the Hungarian movie about the Holocaust, “Son of Saul,” which was recently awarded “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Oscars.
The movie’s central theme is Saul’s inner world, the loss and recovery of his soul. In scene after scene we see his face unmoved, his eyes watching but remote; there is a repellent sense of his—and our own—indifference. But then he witnesses a young boy briefly surviving the gas, only to be put to death a few minutes later by a Nazi doctor, possibly Josef Mengele. From this moment, he becomes consumed by the idea of giving the boy a proper Jewish burial. He claims the boy is his son.
Saul’s recovery of his soul, of his capacity to care and overcome indifference, is a moment of Kierkegaardian subjectivity.
One danger besetting Holocaust films or literature is allowing a cheap moralism, sensationalism, or simple voyeurism. “Son of Saul” avoids this. It throws us into the immediacy, the felt-reality, of Saul’s transition from numbness to recovery.
The audience is not given any space to distance from Saul’s reality or turn it into an abstraction of suffering innocence or goodness; the film doesn’t depict the story of the Holocaust in generic ways that would encourage getting lost in a historical account. Rather, it allows viewers to feel its textures, and perceive the sights and sounds that make up individual experience.
The drama of Saul’s coming to see and feel viscerally things that matter emerges in circumstances explicitly designed to defeat that drama. The camps were designed to strip away souls, to defeat the sense that anything matters.
The camps, and the paths to them, are machines meant for murder, and as important, they are meant to grind down personality—that center from which we see that things matter. The aim is to pulverize heart, affections, self-worth, dignity. To erase subjectivity is to make a would-be human only a meaningless lump, a soulless object.
The felt-reality of our cares, feelings, and attachments becomes weaker and weaker. Wiped away is the sense that I count or matter except as a pawn in a mechanical, impersonal game.
As important, it is loss of my sense that others matter—for instance that a boy just murdered matters enough to be granted a proper burial.
Before his conversion, Saul had been reduced to a numb automaton—he didn’t matter to the Nazis, he didn’t matter to himself, others in his presence didn’t matter.
To claim a dead boy as one’s son is Saul’s implicit affirmation that he can care, and so he matters. It is his explicit affirmation that the boy matters, and that a Jewish burial matters, despite the most desolate of circumstance. He gains a soul
To shift toward a subjective stance, as Saul does, is to affirm all that objectivity denies.
Objectivity denies that we are more than objects, atoms in motion, or brain cells; that we are more than cogs in capitalist, consumerist machinery. It denies that we are more than entries on an objective grid tallying Muslims, Blacks, Women, Mexicans, White Trash, Gays, Poor, Suburbanites, Upper Class. Yet we are real and beyond objectification, as real as Saul and the dead boy become.
The language of “soul” or “care for the defiled” may sound irreparably vague and sentimental. But descriptions only in terms of self-interest, manipulation, or power, or only in terms of hard-wired habits or cranial nerve pathways, erase the human world. In such a numbed world, there would be no novels, poetry or persons to read them, no painting or music, no intimacies of family life, neighborhood, love, or attachment to place.
Son of Saul” avoids what Balog calls “more commercial” approaches to the Holocaust that pander to our half-hidden desire for exciting cinematic violence and inhumanity.
Having viewed films full of mayhem and killing, we can leave the theater tingling and alive, quietly relishing a self-righteousness (we’re not the sadists and not in the world they inhabit). We can relish half-hidden voyeuristic pleasure imbibing the repulsive and horrific. We skip past subjectivity and soul-searching.
In long, unbroken shots, we see the reality of the death camp revealed, its textures made tangible. By using close-ups and shallow focus images throughout, Nemes [the filmmaker] gives viewers no opportunity to disengage from Saul’s point of view. It is as though we are shadowing him in hell. In immersing the viewer this way, Nemes places us there with Saul. This seems to be a moral imperative as well as an aesthetic choice. By eliciting a full, visceral engagement from the viewer, the film embodies the respect for the singular events of the Holocaust that more commercial treatments of the subject fail at. The film is a thoroughly personal, subjective account of the Holocaust.
The horrors of the Holocaust can’t be treated merely as a problem for art. Nor for that matter can they be treated merely as problems for journalists or historians aiming for a solely objective account.
Of course accurate journalism or history and compelling artistry are indispensable. But to succeed in rendering the horror we must also, ineluctably, sense the moral imperative: these were individuals, one by one, who faced the horror (or could not). These were individuals who mattered.
All that they endure, from box-car delivery to postmortem extraction of gold fillings, is designed to erase any remnant of inner life or affection in the victims, who quickly become less than ragged abandoned shoes.
By following Saul as he attains soul—in circumstances designed to despoil him—the film answers a moral imperative.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009. – See more at: https://zeteojournal.com/2016/02/28/identity-erikson-the-third-phase-of-life-retirement-maine-slowness/#sthash.u5OzU3oD.dpuf
Credits and Notes: The Stone, “‘Son of Saul,’ Kierkegaard and the Holocaust,” Katalin Balog, NYTimes Feb 28, 2016. My response here trusts Balog’s account. I have yet to see the film. Kierkegaard develops his concept of subjectivity in his 600-page Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Crumbs: a Mimic, Pathetic, Dialectical Compilation, an Existential Contribution. That book, as its title betrays, is laughing at academic, philosophical abstractions, systems, and genre-categories. It is in many ways a parody of Hegel’s attempt to give an objective account of world history. But it is more than poking fun. The theme, if not the term, pervades all Kierkegaard’s work, beginning with his questioning, in an early journal entry, what he should do with his life. Thanks to Google Images for the portrait of Kierkegaard, for concentration camp scenes. Empty shoes are empty shoes.