On Screened and Unscreened Death, Jewish Bodies, and “The Son of Saul”


Like many of his early films, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight includes countless scenes of bodies being blown to pieces. Nearly all of his plots satisfy a desire for revenge. But what I, like many others, find is that his films leave me with an empty feeling. Although some of his plots have a historical referent (such as the Holocaust – Inglorious Basterds (2009) – or slavery – Django Unchained (2012), one isn’t struck by the evil of history.   There are endless dead and wounded bodies that parade in front of the viewer but they are detached from history. We are struck by something visceral but empty.   These deaths are screened.

I found the opposite to be the case in the recent Holocaust film, The Son of Saul (2015)   In the film, the relation of the dead bodies we see on the screen with the evils of real history is prescient and unscreened. But more importantly for me, as a Jew, was the relation of these bodies to what Michael Wyschogrod would characterize as the Jewish body and its theological meaning.   For Wyschogrod, violence against the Jewish body has theological significance and in The Son of Saul violence against the Jewish body was at the forefront of the entire film.  Seeing the multiplication of dead Jewish bodies – at the beginning of the film the pace of dead bodies being created is preponderant and returns throughout the film – struck deeply at my sense of being a Jew in history and how that existence is deeply precarious and threatened.

To understand what is at stake, we need to have a deeper understanding of what the Jewish body means for Jews and for Jewish theology.   For the Jewish tradition, the Jewish body is not merely a cultural product or accident. According to the 20th century Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod – in contrast to a Medieval Jewish thinker like Moses Maimoindes who saw Judaism more in terms of beliefs and doctrine – one cannot think about God without thinking about the body of the Jewish people. The “being” of the Jewish people is not metaphysical; it is embodied:

The being of Israel is embodied being. Jewish theology can therefore never become pure self-consciousness…Only the Jewish people in its totality (as opposed to this or that individualized mystical experience of being – my note) is the essence of the Jewish people, and that includes not only its understanding segments but also the mute and heavy masses who have suffered for the covenant with a minimum of understanding….whose significance is understood very little.(26, Body of Faith)

Wyschogrod notes how some people may deride “delicatessen Jewishness,” since “there are those for whom their Jewishness means gefilte fish, bagels with lox and cream cheese, or the smell of chicken simmering in broth”(ibid). But “those who think such things with derision do not understand Jewish existence as embodied existence.”   Wyschogrod asks Jews to pay close attention to the Jewish body and Jewish mannerisms. Even though “there is no small significance of those who hate the people of Israel and hate the particular physique of the Jewish people, whose characteristics they caricature,” we should not lose sight of the embodiment of Jewishness.

Wyschogrod points out how, as a result of anti-Semitism and millennia of exile, some Jewish writers (who he calls “self-hating”) have caricatured the Jewish body making it appear weak or effeminate. He associates this kind of caricature with pathology and suggests that we go beyond it in our search for the “truth” of the Jewish body. He associates this truth with a “theology of the Jewish body”:

But caricature often points to otherwise unperceived truths and pathology is often rooted in reality, which pathology distorts but also reflects. The truth we seek is the theology of the Jewish body.   (28)

He sees the truth of the Jewish body in terms of the covenants in the Bible:

We are entitled to speak of such a theology because the divine covenant is with a biological people, the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The biological being of this people therefore comes first. Whatever truth arises out of the covenant between God and Israel it is not a disembodied truth. (ibid)

Reading this, I wonder, does Wyschogrod see the destruction of the Jewish body as a challenge to an “embodied” faith?   In the face of death, he argues that the majority of the Jewish people – historically – have chosen neither nihilism nor fantasy.   Nonetheless, the Jew is haunted by the anti-Semite’s view – which is expressed most clearly in the violence against the Jewish body – that the Jew is not loved by God and that his body is not elected:

Israel…knows that it is loved, and it is this awareness that has enabled it to survive thousands of years of persecution without internalizing the anti-Semite’s view of the Jews. Self-hatred is not absent from Jewish consciousness. No group can totally avoid some degree of internalization when it is hated for so long and so profoundly. But Jews suffer much less than other persecuted groups, with the degree of self-hatred of Jews being often proportional to the degree of alienation from the Jewish tradition. (12)

This insight speaks to what I saw in the film.

Throughout the film, the main character, Saul, was looking for a Rabbi to say Kaddish over a boy who, apparently, was his son.   In the very beginning of the film, after we see countless bodies against a recurring blurriness that goes in and out of focus (a brilliant device which evinces the struggle to see the dead Jewish body). Amidst all of the dead bodies that are gassed (a scene never disclose in Holocaust cinema until now), the body of the boy is heard, coughing. Saul sees this and notices how the body of the boy is dragged to the side and is choked to death by a Nazi doctor. Following this, Saul goes on a journey from place to place, to find a Rabbi to bless his son after he gives him a proper burial.

The twist of the film is that the Rabbi he finds isn’t really a Rabbi and he never gets to bury his son (whose body, in the latter half of the film, is in a bag, concealed). He loses the bag with his son’s body near the end of the film (while he is being chased after escaping the camp). However, in the very end, he finally smiles when he sees a boy who he takes – according to one reading – to be a sign that his “son” has been received by God.   This is a delusion. However, it shows us that Saul – despite all the madness – keeps to his tradition and wants to give the dead body the respect the Jewish tradition gives to the dead.   The body may be his “son’s” or it may be a symbol. Either way, it evokes the question of tradition as a question of embodiment.

Although one may be distraught by the fact that he didn’t respect the body of every single Jew he saw, the fact of the matter is that his preferential love for his son speaks to the tradition that Wyschogrod writes about. In The Body of Faith, Wyschogrod notes that the election of Abraham is authentic because it is preferential.   While the love of all humanity is abstract, the love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is concrete and embodied. Blaise Pascal knew this when he wrote that his god is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   In this sense, while The Son of Saul was a horrific film which gave the viewer an unscreened experience of death and history by way of an endless display of dead Jewish bodies, it also demonstrated what Wsychogrod sees as the embodied faith of the Jewish people.   Since Saul’s passion was to clean his son’s body, find a Rabbi to say Kaddish over it, and to bury it in the earth, his love for this specific Jewish child expressed his love for the Jewish people – the people who he had to witness being killed on a daily basis.   The film isn’t redeemed by his passion to bury his son’s body in a proper, traditional manner; but it does shows us how any commitment to Judaism after the Holocaust must countenance the death of Jewish bodies. It must rethink the meaning of the Jewish body in the assault against Judaism.

While Eli Weisel figured the “death of God,” with the (texted) image hung body of the Jew in his novel Night, The Son of Saul suggests a visualization of the Jewish body that is much more visceral and compelling. It shows us that post-Holocaust Judaism is not simply a set of doctrines that must be affirmed in the wake of the Holocaust or that we should, as Emil Fackenheim suggests, commit ourselves to a 614 commandment and continue the Jewish tradition despite Hitler’s efforts to destroy Judaism. Rather, it suggests that Judaism starts and ends with the Jewish body.   It also suggests, like Michael Wyschogrod, that the “truth” of the Jewish body – though visualized on the screen – may only be discovered through a Jewish theology.

(That, at least, is how I read it. Because, I, like Wyschogrod, see Judaism as embodied and not disembodied, all of those dead bodies on the screen are not the bodies I see in this or that Tarantino film. Those bodies remind me that my history and my life are tied to the bodies of a people, my people. And I realize that the question of my faith is not tied to this or that doctrine alone; it is fundamentally tied to the Jewish body.)



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