Sunday, December 20, 2015

Son of Saul (***)

Directed by László Nemes


The glut of Holocaust films can lead some to wonder whether filmmakers have ever heard of a single other human tragedy. The evil behind it is so calculated, so diabolical, it still seems like humans could not have actually committed the crime. And so, many Holocaust films act accordingly, portraying Nazis as subhuman, mis-wired cretins. Its easier for us to dismiss them as evil, and much harder to reconcile them as people, like you and me. Son of Saul is the first feature from Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, and in his debut he makes a daunting attempt to tell a Holocaust story that is unique, that understands that it isn't despair itself that makes this awful period of history so unsettling, but the many levels in which despair was able to arise - the senselessness of it all. The film is a gritty, handheld-heavy bull that charges nonstop from its first frame, and forms an incredibly claustrophobic aesthetic within the walls of Auschwitz. Actor Géza Röhrig plays the eponymous Saul, a Jew working as a Sonderkommando (a special unit of Jews forced to work for German soldiers) at the notorious concentration camp. Most of his work consists of disrobing imports of new Jews, throwing them into the gas chamber and then raiding their belongings for valuables to be collected by the Nazis. Son of Saul opens very strongly, with two long takes in which we can see very immediately just how much Saul's soul has been crushed. His movements are mechanical muscle memory, his thoughts are within, his actions motivated only by what one would guess are the most elaborate rationalizations. Son of Saul is about the amount to which we will bury ourselves in our own self-hatred in order to survive, and gives new definition to the word 'survival' itself.

Nemes makes his camera known early, shooting the early scenes in a tight close-up around Röhrig's face and head. The furthest we get away from him is the back of his shoulder, but for the most part we stay clinging tight. Surrounding that is a mass of out-of-focus bodies moving, working, yelling and then Nemes coyly shows the bodies, naked, lying on the ground, but those too are blurry, no definable features given special attention. As Saul chugs along, Nemes shows us his tunnel vision, because he has actually put us in that tunnel. The effect is both astonishing and unsettling. We want to thank the director for sparing us the horror, but feel ashamed to opt out of the experience. In order to survive in Auschwitz, you cannot accept these bodies as people with lives and families, even the soldiers ordering Saul and his cohorts around refer to the bodies as "pieces". Some are chosen to be examined by a doctor (Sándor Zsótér), who himself is a Jew; he's forced to execute the macabre orders of perverse German doctors who wish to use these innocent bodies as medical cadavers. When Saul sees the body of a young boy, he's immersed in the intense feeling that this is his illegitimate son. Once he makes this discovery, he is shocked back into moral duty. He carries the boy into the doctor's office, but pleads with the doctor to preserve the body. The doctor responds that he will try but can only postpone the inevitable for so long. Around Saul, the camp is slowly descending into chaos. With the war reaching its end and the Nazis stretching thin, Auschwitz becomes a ferociously efficient death machine as the soldiers hope to liquidate and skip town. As his fellow workers develop a covert plan for escape, Saul instead searches desperately for a rabbi who can help him give his son a proper burial.

Nemes is crafting a very sharp film here, his directorial purpose is forceful but not heavy-handed, and he seems to have a strong grip on the kind of actor he has in Röhrig. As Saul, Röhrig is brilliant, a wondrous display of a muted soul brought back to life. Saul's obsession with completing an impossible task - performing a clandestine burial within the walls of world's worst concentration camp - is attached to his desperation with regaining his soul, and Röhrig's somber march through the horrors surrounding him is a master class in understated performance. Nemes' film is much closer to Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties than it is to Spielberg's Schindler's List or Polanski's The Pianist. His interests do not lie in the sentimentalities, and like Wertmüller's film, Son of Saul has a startling ability to showcase drastic horrors as if they are benign, everyday occurrences within the warped reality of the concentration camp. Seven Beauties is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and I'm very confident in saying that Son of Saul is not quite at that level - this is hardly a biting critique. Nemes' use of handheld cinematography (along with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély) is severe, and his intelligent crafting of sound gives the film its most gripping component, many conversations are overheard presenting several drastic puzzle pieces the audience is forced to put together. But Son of Saul still feels like a debut film at times, mostly in its stubborn use of cinema verité to reinforce the struggle of the Sonderkommando. Nemes' film may not be as saccharine as Spielberg's Holocaust tale, but he lacks Spielberg's preternatural talent for storytelling, for creating scope and context to maximize an emotional reaction. Son of Saul doesn't separate itself too much amongst the very best films in the Holocaust sub-genre, but the work here is strong. Along with the stunning work from Röhrig, Nemes proves that there are still unusual and powerful ways to make films about humanity's darkest period in recent history.

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