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At the Oscars, a New Side of Holocaust

  • Penelope Poulou

Since World War II, the Holocaust has been the subject of countless films. Son of Saul by Hungarian Laszlo Nemes and Labyrinth of Lies by German – Italian Giulio Ricciarelli are two new additions in the filmography. Both have been nominated for an Oscar in the category of Foreign Language Film for their great cinematography, their exceptional acting and mainly their cutting edge approach to the Holocaust.

Son of Saul offers a gruesome portrayal of the Holocaust through the eyes of Saul Auslander, a member of a Sonderkommando unit at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp during World War II.

Sonderkommandos were Jewish prisoners forced to work in the crematoriums. The film chronicles Saul’s desperate search for a Rabbi to perform a proper burial on a young boy, one of the hundreds of thousands gassed in the chambers.

Using a handheld camera, filmmaker Laszlo Nemes focused almost exclusively on Saul’s face throughout his two-day-long ordeal, while heinous acts are being committed in the out-of-focus background, leaving the details to the viewer’s imagination.

Nemes said he employed loud disorienting sounds of people pleading, screaming and dying in his effort to recreate the chaotic and horrific atmosphere the sonderkommandos described in their texts about life and death at the camps.

He said "the thinking process has no place in the camp and it is something that we never understood after the war. Thinking comes after the war. When you're inside, it is a different state of mind and we wanted to communicate that state of mind, and I think the audience’s experience reflects the individual experience in camp with all the frustration, the sense of being locked or limited and the very limited access to what's going on."

Nemes said his film takes the viewer on a journey along with the victims, most of whom never survived to describe their experiences. So the viewer inhabits extermination camp testimonials that see the light on the large screen for the first time. Nemes said his film offers an internal look at the Holocaust, as opposed to the traditional approach of cinema on the saga where the camera observes but does not participate.

Despite its grim outlook, Nemes said there is humanity in a story where the main character, in the midst of death, risks his life to bury another.

“There is this idea about leaving a trace. And it’s also something very human. That is also something that the sonderkommandos wanted: Even if the Jews of Europe are being destroyed let there be a trace of them,” he said.

Watch the VOA Interview with Laszlo Nemes on the making and the meaning of his Oscar-nominated film about the Holocaust Son of Saul

Labyrinth of Lies, by Giulio Ricciarelli, told the story of Johann Radmann, a German prosecutor who — while investigating a suspected Nazi for war crimes in the late 1950s — discovers that massive crimes against humanity were committed at Auschwitz.

Labyrinth of Lies reveals how, for almost 20 years after the end of the war, Germany covered up its atrocities at Auschwitz, so the younger generation knew nothing about the extermination camps or the Holocaust.

The filmmaker said the code of silence was broken in 1963, when Nazi war criminals were finally tried in Germany for their acts at Auschwitz. Ricciarelli said that, as unlikely as the story sounds, it is true. He says the camps were not located in Germany, so they were not visible to many Germans who might have heard something about them, but they had received a sanitized description of them as "protection camps."

He said the Nazis even shot a propaganda movie about the Theresienstadt concentration camp in today's Czech Republic, calling it "The Fuhrer gives the Jews a new city." It was described like a summer camp, he said.

A character in the film said, "all we had to do was to open our eyes."

"But there was no wish to open the eyes," said the filmmaker. "And then you had a young generation growing up, somebody who was five or six or nine and when the war ended, they grew up in an atmosphere of silence."

Labyrinth of Lies runs like a taut thriller, but filmmaker Ricciarelli said as unbelievable as it sounds, this is a true story with the exception of Johann Radmann’s character, who is a composite of real-life prosecutors.

“He sits on a very high moral horse. He is convinced he knows what is right, and he will be a very changed man at the end of the film. He will be humble, but he will have matured to the point where he actually can deal with it. The process almost breaks him. He is the metaphor for the young Republic of Germany after the war."

Watch the VOA interview with filmmaker Giulio Ricciarelli on his film Labyrinth of Lies

Since then, Germany has been facing up to its past. Labyrinth of Lies is Germany’s official endorsement for the foreign language Oscar.