Now we know why the kids in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant walked and walked, endlessly, followed by an insidious camera literally breathing down their neck. Now we know why the guy that called himself Keane in the eponymous film directed by Lodge Kerrigan in 2004 wouldn’t stop moving and dancing in a desolate bar while the frame gripped him in an agonising foreground, although an extremely movable one on the other hand. Now we know why Van Sant himself said that the inspiration to make Elephant and Gerry came from the films of a Hungarian director called Béla Tarr, from Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies. And all of this because now László Nemes, Tarr’s assistant director in The Man from London, is premiering Son of Saul, a film in which a sonderkommando obsessively traverses the nazi camp he’s confined in with the only goal of trying to find a dignified burial place for his son, and all is registered by the same obsessive planning and vertiginous travellings that follow the character close by, really close by.
And all of sudden it all seems clear and transparent. On the one hand, the genealogy that links that Hungarian school with a certain North-American experimentalist one from the beginning of this century becomes evident. On the other, the correspondences turn these links into something much more complex than it would seem at first. The distressed Saul affirms that the boy that has died in the camp is his son, but we can never be completely sure about it, as we can never be sure that the daughter Keane is looking for is alive. Tarr’s last work, The Turin Horse, shows the same kind of apocalyptic air, in the form of wild nature shaken by perpetual winds and sand tempests that have a lot to do with the hardships suffered in an inhospitable desert by two characters called Gerry, who in fact are suspiciously similar to previous figures populating Tarr’s films.
Son of Saul, Lászlo Nemes, 2015
Keane, Lodge Kerrigan, 2004
Elephant, Gus Van Sant, 2003
Sátántangó, Béla Tarr, 1994
And isn’t that moment, precisely, the experience of the extermination camps, the point of no return both for illustrated rationalism and for a certain concept of identity of the Western subject? There we have Primo Levi or Jean Améry to bear witness of this. One as much as the other coincide in affirming that the systematic, premeditated and continuous torture and humiliation suffered in the camps were above all a form of de-humanisation. Thus, for contemporary culture the fundamental issue of that horror isn’t the Jewish holocaust, but something that is introduced in a sibylline way into ontological territory: losing one’s identity, ceasing to be a man or a woman to become a bunch of blood and bones and, what is worse, a body with no conscience, a piece of meat only trying to stay alive, beating, working. Of course, that is the origin of neo-capitalism, born in the after war period. Since that extreme experiment failed, too monstrous to be applied much longer, other more subtle forms had to be found: work should become an inner obsession so that neither torture nor murder were necessary for it all to carry on in the most ruthless and de-humanised way possible. In La question humaine, by Nicolas Klotz, the functioning of modern companies is directly identified with the power relations that existed in the camps. And the contemporary subject turns into what the executioners and guardian dogs wanted: a thinking void, a mind dispossessed of ideas, the form of brutal alienation that Marx warned us about.
Saul could be the last of men with an objective: he wants to bury a boy he calls “son” in the midst of a hell in which a burial can be no other thing than the definitive imposition of anonymity. Indeed, the common grave where prisoners end up falling one after the other, waiting obediently in a line, after they’re shot on the head, is nothing else than the disappearance of the eyes of a witness and the emergence of a body that becomes mere matter when coming into contact with the other bodies, equally converted into dislocated masses. Those unimaginable images we’ve seen so many times, those corpses piled up waiting for the ravenous fire that will even finish with their bodily presence, represent the absolute annihilation of the sovereign individual that brought with it the ideal of the French Revolution. Whoever manages to stand and get out of there again, any “survivor”, will be nothing else than a body walking towards who knows where. In Gerry, it all begins with a personality mix-up, with two kids that share a name so they can’t be told apart, and ends up with a hallucinated wandering and final disappearance. In Elephant, irrational violence, again, the indiscriminate Columbine massacre that inspired the killings of the film seems to emerge from that mechanisation of the bodies that walk without ever stopping, through campuses and corridors, as if they are unable to see anything they have around. In Keane, the possibility for a father to find his daughter is not so much an attempt to accomplish that goal as to get a kind of universal redemption to liberate him of the state of perpetual anxiety that he suffers for not being anything anymore.
Anything anymore? The sixties, when many thought they had returned to paradise, ended, for American cinema, with an atrocious film: George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, in which the figure of the zombie definitely acquires existential connotations. It’s no longer a monster equal to other un-dead, like Dracula or Frankenstein, but something the destiny of which is to wander with no direction, something that doesn’t want to get its self-consciousness back, something the presence of which is based on its own absence, as if the metaphor of the common grave had materialised: the body as the graveyard of other bodies that become indistinguishable, since one devours the other and assimilates it until there is nothing left. In Son of Saul, the face shot, taken from the front or the back, always includes around it the horrible commotion of death and destruction, so that when the character walks he’s followed by fire and blood, symbols of a universe that can only be half represented, hazily, like the mutant images of a nightmare. In Sátántangó or in Elephant or in Keane, on the contrary, the contour of the human figure is an abysmal void, made up of abstract forms that don’t mean to say anything beyond showing the way in which ones intermingle with others like in a spectral diorama. Maybe, in this century, films started telling the story by the end. Maybe they wanted to first bare witness of the contemporary void and then go back in time, with Saul the gravedigger, to the diabolic origin that gave it its shape.