I am beginning to conclude that the past is always present. On January 11th I received a Facebook message from the mother of the Hungarian family that hosted me as a college student.
“If possible,” she wrote in Hungarian, “go see ‘Son of Saul’. It just won a Golden Globe.”
I Googled it. Learning that the film takes place at Auschwitz, which I visited years ago, turned my insides into a familiar yet never identically shaped cavern of dread, sadness and grief. Those words don’t really do the experience justice; it’s as if everything I know myself to be is sucked away by some horrible mystical vacuum, a Hoover of Doom. Even when I think I’ve finally learned how to either navigate around this unnamable void or erect fences and barricades so that I’m not sucked into the abyss even for a few seconds, let alone long stretches of time, its contours and fault lines seem to shift. As time goes on, the death of my father’s family in the Holocaust hasn’t receded into the mythical past, it just changes shape. Some days, and even for relatively long periods, it’s a speck on the landscape, barely perceptible even to me. I fool myself into thinking I’ve “moved on”, whatever that means. Other times it’s a more obvious crack I try to avoid. At various moments it’s as if the ground itself has opened up under the heft of the horror, under the weight of the incompletely grieved and of their untold stories, sending me tumbling. In a culture that tends to plaster platitudes over paradox and put a positive spin on practically everything, I will say this: just as the Bay Area’s natural beauty and varied terrain have been sculpted by the San Andreas Fault, parts of my own topography have been shaped by tumult. To pretend otherwise is as absurd as ignoring seismic activity in Northern California. Even if it’s dormant, even if at first glance the damage from the worst quake isn’t visible, the fault lines are still there, deep beneath the surface.
As for my Hungarian host’s message, I didn’t reply right away.
On January 16th she sent me another note, in English this time. Perhaps she thought I had forgotten Hungarian or misunderstood? I hadn’t.
“Have you heard about movie ‘Son of Saul’? We have already seen it, look at it as soon as possible,” she wrote.
I couldn’t ignore her. She had met my Hungarian born father decades ago and knew he had survived Auschwitz. The film, according to some critics, is one of the best ever made. Not just one of the best Holocaust films. One of best films, period! It’s hard to turn my back on such high and rare praise.
“Thanks for your messages,” I wrote. “And, I’m afraid such a film might be upsetting for me to watch, even if it is excellent.”
She acknowledged my fear and tried to convince me that it’s unlike other Holocaust films, phenomenal in how it’s made. I told her I was glad she found it worthwhile. I said I’d consider it. I thought that was the end of it.
On January 20th she e-mailed me the link to a film, “Turelem (Patience)“, made by László Nemes, the director of “Son of Saul”.
“It’s just 10 minutes,” she wrote in Hungarian.
I interpreted that to mean it was a small taste of the director’s genius. Perhaps if I enjoyed the short movie, I’d want the full meal of the feature film. I clicked the link but got a message that the content was unavailable outside of Hungary. I wrote to her that I wasn’t able to see it. Secretly, I felt relieved.
On January 28th she messaged me through Facebook. She had posted a link to “Patience” on her timeline. Perhaps I could watch it there. She told me to be patient with it, as every moment counts. She also sent me the link to the video via e-mail. Swayed by her persistence, I reluctantly watched the mostly silent film. Just 10 minutes. Could I handle 10 minutes to appreciate an award winning Hungarian Jewish artist? The director’s talent was palpable, as were my sensations of dread at the ultimate revelation of a very artfully rendered, yet disturbing, scene of Jews about to meet their deaths. I didn’t fall completely into the abyss, just noticed my feet slipping on loose soil in time to retreat. That was more than enough. I wrote to her that I had watched it. Over on Facebook, I sent her links to Feldenkrais offerings in Budapest, wishing to stay in contact but wanting to switch the subject.
A month later, February 28th, “Son of Saul” received an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. With the film on the world’s radar, I read reviews and articles about it. I still wanted to know why it was so great even if I wasn’t going to watch it. I became riveted by the story of the film, the debut of its director who, as a five year old, learned about the death of his extended family at the hands of the Nazis. Apparently his mother spared him no details, planting the seeds for this film at a young age.
“The sense of seriousness and driving rage behind its invention, the utter force of Nemes’ desire to understand what it was like for those who were there, and to honour them by refusing to adorn the story with false messages of hope and survival, make this a monumental achievement,” wrote one Australian reviewer.
Over his life time, my father chose to spare us many, if not most, of the worst details. I heard relatively few as a child, learning about the Holocaust mostly from books. His selective silence didn’t spare me the rage, a rage that ran dark and silent like a subterranean river. Mostly the rage remained underground but occasionally burst over the banks of my being, showing up in situations it either didn’t belong or with an intensity that others couldn’t comprehend. In hindsight, having more details, more contours to my father’s particular experience of the nightmare, might have filled in part of the abyss and given me some tools for navigating the rage. It’s impossible to know for sure. Still, I admired if not envied Mr. Nemes for being able to channel his rage for so many years, against so many odds, to produce his film.
Although Mr. Nemes lived in France as young man and studied film there, he received no funding from the French or the Israelis, who deemed his project too risky. Oddly, he received financial support from Hungary which, in his words, “hasn’t come to terms with the destruction of its Jews. The loss hasn’t been understood.” His story reminded me that sometimes our allies might come from unlikely places, that we can never know what will help make the impossible become possible. And, his bracing frankness in interviews came as a relief: “My film is not about survival; it is about the reality of death. Survival is a lie, it was the exception.”
Two days after the Oscars, on March 1, I received birthday greetings from a former boyfriend, a Hungarian, who even after our breakup remained friendly with my father. As a P.S. he wrote: “Have you seen Laszlo Nemes’ film?”
The question weighed heavily, like an obligation to attend a funeral of someone I knew but didn’t feel close to. I didn’t reply right away.
The film has been playing at a local theatre. The bone white letters spelling ‘Son of Saul’ stand sharply against the marquee’s black background. They call to me as I walk or drive by, my equivalent of the ancient sirens. It’s been showing there for a while, so attendance is likely strong. I wonder who is watching and why: those who see every award winning film, those who feel duty bound, those who’ve been coaxed by friends and family, and perhaps those who are both curious and courageous. I start to doubt my earlier, instinctive refusal to see it and wonder if there are any circumstances under which I’d change my mind. By this point, I’d read enough to learn how it’s filmed, what happens and what isn’t shown (but is heard) on screen. That, I decide once again, will suffice.
About two weeks later, I reply to my former boyfriend. I thank him for the birthday wishes and tell him I won’t be seeing the movie, although I’m glad such a film was made.
The next day, March 15, both László Nemes and Géza Röhrig, the Hungarian born and now religious Jew who portrays Saul in the film, received the prestigious Kossuth prize in Budapest. Mr. Röhrig wore a black skullcap to the ceremony, where he shook the hands of Hungarian officials including the Prime Minister. The photo circulates on Facebook. It’s a scenario that would have been unimaginable not long ago. Had my father lived to see that moment, I wonder how he would have reacted. Would he have cracked one of his irreverent jokes or silently wiped tears from his eyes? With him, as with earthquakes, it’s hard to predict.