I tend to avoid this category of movies, too, but not for the same reason as Podhoretz (although I can certainly see where he's coming from). The reason I eschew them is less philosophical and more practical: it's because they are such downers, and because I lack the masochistic tendencies that could well be a prerequisite for being able to sit through them.
Take, for example, Son of Saul, the Hungarian flick that won the most recently-awarded Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Here's how Dan Kagan-Kans summarizes the movie's plot in a recent Mosaic essay (spoiler alert for those who plan to see the film and don't want to know its specifics):
Son of Saul follows Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jew imprisoned in an unnamed death camp resembling Auschwitz. Upon arrival at the camp four months before the film begins, Saul, in his thirties, not large but strong enough, had been spared immediate murder and was put to work as a Sonderkommando, a slave in the camp’s death-machinery. His job since then has been to guide newly arriving transports of Jews from the trains to the camp; to convince them once inside to remove their clothes in an orderly way; to usher them to a shower with promises of soup afterward; to wait impassively outside the chamber door while the screams rise and then fall; to drag out their bodies and deliver them to others who will take them to be burned; and to sort for valuables through the clothes they’ve left behind. Saul does this work with other Jews, each of whom lives in a world of his own; sometimes they exchange whispers, but since they don’t all speak the same language they don’t always understand what others are saying. Besides, what is there to say, and who can be trusted in a place where survival depends on looking out for oneself?
One day, a boy, weak from the gas but still alive, is found in the chamber. He’s carried to a nearby bench and a Nazi doctor is alerted. Saul watches at a distance as the doctor suffocates the boy by hand. Bring the body up to my office for study, he orders—and the movie’s plot kicks into motion.
Saul watches at a distance as the doctor suffocates the boy by hand. Bring the body up to my office for study, he orders—and the movie’s plot kicks into motion.
Saul, claiming that the boy is his son—it’s left open whether or not this is true—decides he must be given a proper Jewish burial. For that he needs to rescue the body and find a rabbi, who will know the rituals and prayers of which he’s ignorant. Saul’s efforts over the course of the film’s two days lead him ever deeper into the camp’s “production” process, from gas chamber to crematorium to ash disposal and on. At each stage he must complete two tasks, one for the Germans—removing bodies, shoveling ash into the river—and one for himself—finding a rabbi amid the shovelers.
A third task, related to a revolt some of the other Sonderkommandos are plotting, sometimes breaks in. Saul is clever, and able to navigate the chaos and unexpected freedom that is allowed a Sonderkommando; except for twice-daily roll calls, no single person is in constant charge of him, and as long as he keeps his head down (which he doesn’t always do) and appears to be working, he can roam a bit.
The two main strands of the plot, Saul’s search and the planning of the revolt, come to a head when the Sonderkommandos receive word that they themselves are soon to be liquidated. Breaking into action, they drag Saul along, sending him to collect some explosive powder that’s been smuggled into the women’s side of the camp. He bungles the job, and in the process causes the death of another Sonderkommando. Both plans begin to fall apart. The revolt fails, though it does allow a few, including Saul and a rabbi he has plucked from the latest shipment of victims, to escape into the Polish surroundings. But the rabbi turns out to be just a pretender with a beard, the child cannot be buried, and Saul loses the corpse while crossing the river. At the end, the escaped prisoners, including Saul, are found and shot.And, masochism aside, the reason I would want to fill my head with such horrific imagery is...why?
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