Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review of "Son of Saul"

If László Nemes' film "Son of Saul", set in Auschwitz in 1944, is ultimately a success, it is because before anything else it understands that a conflict spanning the entirety of the universe can be depicted on a canvas no bigger and no smaller than the human face; in fact, it understands that the human face is the perfect setting for such things. If it falls short of triumph, that's because it follows its own methodologies a little too closely to their ends, and seems slightly too preoccupied with itself as a film as opposed to what it seemed to me to be; a document, a hymn, a paean.

Opening text informs us of the "Sonderkommando", a group of Jews chosen in Auschwitz to work for a few months, before being killed. Saul (Géza Rohrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando; a startling and upsetting opening shot presents him front and centre, ushering in a new truck full of his kin, to be disposed of by the cruel guards. This opening take is remarkable for two reasons, firstly because it's an ambitious long-shot, and secondly because it establishes Saul's character in a way that fundamentally doesn't really change for the remaining 100 minutes. Red cross on his back, hollowed out sunken eyes, mouth slightly twisted, blank expression; he doesn't give anything away.

This creates a paradox which sustains the whole film; just how does Saul remain so emotionless in the face of such unspeakable horror? How can he, for example, not even give a sign of disgust as he drags corpses across a blood-streaked gas chamber floor, or as he is forced to dance for a room full of sneering Nazi guards?

In this sense we do not get to 'know' Saul in the sense that we would typically come to know a protagonist. But there are some clues thrown our way; a passing reference to a conversation from a less hellish time, a couple of moments where we sense his mind has gone blank, and the prevailing sense of his determination. And the driving mechanism for the film is a clue also; Saul becomes steadily more obsessed with a young boy who comes coughing out of the gas chamber and dies shortly after, seeking a proper burial for him. This is the plot in its entirety.

Stanley Kubrick once stated that the problem with "Schindler's List" was that it took a moment of despair in the human race, and turned into a story of hope. Kubrick no doubt would have strongly approved of this film, for it is hopeless (although not nihilistic, thankfully). It stares into the horror and does not ask us for an opinion, or a reaction; instead, to simply observe. It is a fearfully convincing recreation, and I had to look away in all the obvious places.

This is mainly due to the cinematography from Mátyás Erdély, which adopts Saul's perspective and immerses us in it, and the production design from Lászlá Rajk, which is sharp and brutalist, all dingy concrete underground rooms and long off-white corridors leading round into nameless horror (as it should be, as it was).

As the story goes on, we realise that the Saul's journey can be taken either as a Biblical attempt at redemption, or something more mundane, the last grasp of a man facing death attempting to salvage something, and going insane as he does so. In the end, ultimately, it does not matter; he is here, he is doing this, and this is what is. The chaos surrounding him is scary, but he is on a mission. The classical 1:33 aspect ratio is perfect for this, with its intimidating black bars at the side; it mirrors Saul's tunnel vision. The sound design is vast, overbearing, industrial, imposing. The final moments are staggering in both their power and their logic.

However, when I said that the film has a mechanism, I do not mean this in a positive way. For a film staged so excellently and so thematically powerful, being reminded that we are in fact watching a film is one of the last things you want; we should be immersed completely. But there are moments here and there; shots left too long out of focus, as if to say... Well, what? Technique is left to creep in where it shouldn't have done. And when the film breaks its predominant focus on Saul, as it does in a couple of scenes, I felt pulled out of it.

This is a dark and powerful piece, meticulously composed and unlike anything I've ever seen, especially on this topic. That it is so great makes its flaws that bit more jarring. Nevertheless, this is vital, devastating stuff, a film that feels like it needed to be made. And, well, good. Because it did. And, consequently, it needs to be seen too.

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