Son of Saul and the ethics of representation: troubling the figure of the child

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Amanda Howell
Margaret Gibson


Taking László Nemes’ film Son of Saul (2015) as both an aesthetic intervention into the public remembering of the Holocaust and as a critical/creative essay on representations of the horrors of war and violence more generally, this paper considers its use of the image and idea of the dead child—the child victim—and its ability to move, to communicate, to galvanise action, to seemingly cut through the chaos of communication. A figure presented as tangible and mournable in a way that the many anonymous, barely-glimpsed and largely ignored dead of the film are not, we consider it in relation to previous representations of the child in Holocaust film, but also, importantly, in relation to contemporary photographic examples of the child victim-as-icon, whose images seemingly require no caption to communicate and which inspire deeply-felt responses across cultures, organising structures of public feeling. As Nemes’ film makes clear, the claim of the child victim on the witness is profound, immediate, and potentially transformative. We will consider how the image of the child operates as a fluid signifier of both hope and despair, shared desires and fears, a not-unproblematic image through which the obscene and the unthinkable are mediated and made visible.

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Troubled Images