Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the ashes a visible reminder of our human mortality, sinfulness and need for repentance. It’s as good a time as any to reflect on the conditions under which ordinary human beings sometimes lose their moral compass and become accomplices to evil. We like to think of ourselves as basically good people. We would never do really bad things to others. But most of us have never really been tested either.
About the greatest collective evil that can be imagined is that of genocide — the deliberate extermination of a group of human beings simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity or similar defining characteristic. The most terrible genocide in world history is that of the Holocaust carried out by Nazi Germany’s totalitarian regime. It could not have happened without a large degree of mass acquiescence. The “final solution” required a vast apparatus, murder on an industrial scale. There were those careful to see no evil, those who saw and did nothing, and those who participated — “Hitler’s willing executioners” in the words of historian Daniel Goldhagen.
The monstrous evil of the Nazi death camps even involved some Jewish prisoners in the gruesome tasks associated with the machinery of genocide. These were able-bodied male prisoners temporarily spared from extinction in order to do the sordid work of sorting through clothing and belongings for items of value from those destined to be gassed, then removing bodies and transporting them to the crematoria. Could there be a greater sign of evil than the ashes which resulted?
These groups of Jewish prisoners were known as sonderkommandos. A member of one working in Auschwitz-Birkenau is the subject of my most important, and best, film of 2015 as already briefly described in several previous columns. This is Son of Saul, the remarkable first feature by 38-year-old Hungarian director László Nemes, which is favoured to win the foreign-language Oscar later this month.
Nemes, a descendant of family members who died in Auschwitz, provides a deeply personalized vantage point on the nature of the Holocaust by focusing on the fate of a single human being. That singular concentration proves more powerful than the familiar statistics of mass murder. Saul Ausländer (Hungarian-born Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian sonderkommado, the back of his coat marked with a red X to indicate his status. His eyes are downcast and furtive as he goes about the grim tasks. Rumours circulate among different squads of sonderkommandos about which might next be marked for execution. Life reduced to barest survival is surrounded by the spectre of death.
The camera keeps tightly on Saul, hovering over his shoulder so that we witness everything as he does. Backgrounds are often blurred, their horrors starkly evident without being so graphic as to be unwatchable. Then Saul comes upon the body of a boy who could be his son. With whatever shred of dignity is left he becomes obsessed that this dead boy not be mere indiscriminate ashes. He is desperate to find a rabbi who can perform proper burial rites. Greater risks follow as Saul takes part in a prisoner uprising in which a group escapes, crossing a river into a forest. Another young boy enters the picture and there is a last moment when a brief spark of human spirit alights on Saul’s face before the darkness closes.
Nemes has explained that: “By making a portrait of a man in the midst of hell, we give the measure of humanity, to see whether there can be humanity beyond inhumanity. There’s nothing left. Can there still be an inner God?” His interest is in “a sort of evil that cannot be understood at a glance or represented.”
In a question and answer session following the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto film festival, Nemes spoke about his aim of creating a visceral immediate sense of being a sonderkommando in the death chambers. (The only comparison I can think of is to Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 Auschwitz drama The Grey Zone, though it used mostly American actors speaking English.)
Röhrig, whose performance as Saul is unforgettable, told the Toronto audience that he had to overcome skepticism about Holocaust portrayals to be convinced to take the part. What made the difference was the depth of the role’s personal witness to evil, one that dares enter its most dire moments. Inspired by their connections to that terrible past, Nemes and Röhrig, both practising Jews, realize a vision that is utterly convincing.
At the same time, Son of Saul resonates beyond historical drama, presenting the story of humanity in the grip of genocide as if in the here and now. It may be comforting to think “never again.” But as Nemes put it: “The Holocaust is a permanent possibility.”
Next week I’ll give highlights from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Before that let me recall two excellent selections from the 2015 festival, also based on actual events, that probe controversial post-war psychological experiments venturing into territory that Hannah Arendt famously referred to as “the banality of evil.”
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s prize-winning The Stanford Prison Experiment effectively recreates the atmosphere of a notorious 1971 university psychology department experiment undertaken by Professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) involving two-dozen male subjects. After being interviewed half were assigned roles as guards and half as prisoners. The young men were aware that hidden cameras were recording the situation being monitored by the professor and his assistants, one of whom had been a real-life convict at San Quentin. Those assigned to be guards were not chosen because they exhibited any authoritarian traits; if anything the contrary. All were seemingly normal young student types. One “guard” had actually wanted to be a prisoner because as he said “nobody likes guards.”
Yet the role-playing very quickly started to become serious. That reluctant guard developed a swaggering persona, taking to the “job” of keeping “prisoners” in line with relish. Afterward he would explain: “I enjoyed becoming everything I’ve hated for so long.” A violent confrontation occurred on the first day. The prisoners were referred to by numbers, stripping away some of their individuality. As in a real prison, guards were put in charge of giving orders and prisoners expected to follow them. A few protestations aside, the power imbalance went to the heads of the guards, resulting in escalating abuses to the point of causing psychological breakdown. The experiment, partly funded by the U.S. military, was supposed to last several weeks but had to be stopped after six days before someone was badly injured or even killed.
Remember that the subjects knew it was just an experimental setup with all actions under video surveillance. Yet the power of the situation induced a level of depersonalization and dehumanization the rapidity and consequences of which shocked everyone. Zimbardo, who was consulted on the film, was accused of going too far though he was never sued or sanctioned. He later admitted he had been at fault for letting things get out of hand and became an advocate for prison reform. The study still stands as a landmark on how surprisingly easy it is to turn ordinary people into monsters.
Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter tells of the equally contested Yale university study conducted a decade earlier in 1961 by an ambitious social psychologist and professor of social relations, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard). The aim of Milgram’s experiment was to test obedience to authority figures. Two subjects were brought together in a divided room and assigned the roles of “teacher” and “learner.” The learner would be seated on one side and hooked up to a machine designed to give electric shocks. The teacher was seated in front of a console and asked to quiz the learner on word-association pairs. For every wrong answer the teacher was to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity. The teacher was initially given a mild shock to give him a sense of that. The teacher could not see the learner but was able to hear cries of pain. A member of the experimental team sat behind the teacher and if there was any hesitation would quietly but firmly insist that the quiz continue.
In fact, unknown to the “teachers,” the learner was a staff member and the cries of pain and pleas to stop were simply recordings. Milgram was observing the teacher and making notes from behind a two-way mirror. What he observed was startling and contradicted the consensus of the psychology profession.
With very few exceptions, the teachers never refused orders to continue even when they thought they were giving dangerously severe shocks. At first the subjects were all white males. But when women and people of colour were tested the results were similar.
This was a time that coincided with the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem and Milgram, of Romanian-Hungarian Jewish descent, was keenly interested in the genesis of genocide and the extent to which ordinary people would “just follow orders” in inflicting harm on others. Supported by his wife Sasha (Wynona Rider) Milgram became an academic celebrity but also a controversial figure provoking investigations of his professional ethics. Some condemned the experiment as an exercise in deceitful manipulation. Still, Milgram’s 1974 book Obedience to Authority became a landmark in the field.
The film is visually inventive (including an actual elephant in the room) and Sarsgaard is brilliant as the self-regarding professor who often confides how clever he is directly to the camera. Milgram moved on to Harvard, then, when denied tenure, to the City University of New York. He produced more ground-breaking research, notably that which led to the popular notion of “six degrees of separation.”
What sticks in the mind from viewing Experimenter are those recreated psychological tests on some 800 subjects from over a half-century ago. In the same situation would we have reacted differently? Would we have refused to follow orders? The roots of evil may be closer than we think.