Critics Corner: SON OF SAUL

Son-of-Saul-poster

At last year’s Cannes Film Festival there was a strong selection of films to consider but one movie made a lasting impression with images and a story people cannot forget. László Nemes‘ Son of Saul won the coveted Grand Prix award and has been the film “you must not miss” at Toronto, Telluride and New York Film Festivals.

As Son of Saul opens in limited engagements this week it has just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and been nominated in the same category for an Academy Award.

We asked Annette Insdorf and Len Weiler to give their perspectives and we think you will find their review provocative. Read Len Weiler’s fascinating interview with Son of Saul director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig.

SON OF SAUL 2Visceral Vigilance: SON OF SAUL

by Annette Insdorf

Exactly one year ago, I was championing a powerful film from Eastern Europe that succeeded precisely because of its austerity: Ida whispered rather than shouted. And after its world premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2014. Like this intimate portrait from Poland, László Nemes’ Son of Saul – a Hungarian representation of the Holocaust — is minimalist: shot on 35mm film in the square 4:3 aspect ratio, it utilizes shallow focus as well as long, unbroken takes that lock the audience into the protagonist’s frame.

Continue reading →

saul closeSon of Saul: Living in the Death Factory

by Len Weiler

There’s a grassy field with some indistinct trees, the distant sound of birds, and a few clusters of vaguely perceived people on the periphery, although we have no idea who they are or what they are doing. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone is walking toward us. Like most everything else, this person is a blur, a mirage-like image of a man. He comes closer and closer, then stops just as his head and shoulders fill the screen and come into sharp focus. He is a rugged-looking guy, in rough clothing, with a face that might be handsome but instead is grim, noncommittal and emotionally dead.

Continue reading →


SON OF SAUL 2Visceral Vigilance: SON OF SAUL

by Annette Insdorf

Exactly one year ago, I was championing a powerful film from Eastern Europe that succeeded precisely because of its austerity: Ida whispered rather than shouted. And after its world premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2014. Like this intimate portrait from Poland, László Nemes’ Son of Saul – a Hungarian representation of the Holocaust — is minimalist: shot on 35mm film in the square 4:3 aspect ratio, it utilizes shallow focus as well as long, unbroken takes that lock the audience into the protagonist’s frame. Having won the Grand Prize in Cannes and received numerous nominations, Laszlo Nemes’ film is also considered the front-runner for this year’s Oscar in the Foreign-Language category.

But connections to Ida only go so far, given that Son of Saul takes place entirely in Auschwitz-Birkenau, anchored in the face and perspective of a Jewish prisoner. Saul (Géza Röhrig), a former watchmaker, is a member of the Sonderkommando: this group of inmates is forced to prepare unwitting Jewish captives for the gas chambers, and to clean the crematoria after the corpses have been burned. As part of the Nazi machinery of extermination, they are temporarily afforded the luxury of food, vodka, clothes and shelter; however, they know they will themselves be eliminated within four months. As one prisoner puts it, “We’re dead already.”

Nevertheless, the vitality of the cinematic storytelling keeps Son of Saul from being a depressing experience; rather, it takes us inside the chaos of the camp with breathtaking control. Much of its power comes from the casting of actors who speak the language of their character, including Hungarian, Yiddish, German and Polish. In his perceptive Variety review of May 14, 2015, Justin Chang called the film “a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload that recasts familiar horrors in daringly existential terms.”

SON OF SAUL photoFor example, the sound design is richly layered, alerting us to all the off-screen elements that the film does not show. The opening includes whistles, shouts, train rumbles and, later, snatches of an orchestra playing. Only in the background can we glimpse images of naked people about to be led to the gas chamber. A voice-over in German gives false reassurance that jobs await them after the “shower.” Rather than indulging in graphic horror, the camera remains on a close-up of Saul’s impassive face as we hear yelling and the beating of walls.

Son of Saul is quietly devastating – as unflinching as the protagonist’s gaze – with a gritty authenticity due to​ gradual and only partial revelations. It’s hard to believe that this is a first feature for Nemes, who co-wrote the script with Clara Royer. His shorthand narrative strategy — sketches rather than full brushstrokes — presupposes that the audience already knows about Auschwitz, the concentration camp established by the Nazis on Polish soil: some will recognize the crematoria and recall October 1944 as the period when the Jews of Hungary were brought to the death camp in record numbers. (The main ramp was actually built in 1944 to expedite the extermination of Hungarian Jews via three ramps.) And it helps to know that some members of the Sonderkommando also worked with the Resistance, participating in the uprising of early October.

Saul is less interested in the impending armed rebellion than in arranging for the proper Jewish burial of a boy. Having witnessed, through a door, a youth who survived the gas — but was then strangled by a German doctor — Saul claims the boy is his son. Perhaps it is so. Or maybe Saul needs an antidote to the death factory of which he is a cog, and a goal that is moral or spiritual rather than practical. Obsessed with finding a rabbi to perform last rites, he does not fulfill a commitment to Resistance action.

Son of Saul evokes Terrence Des Pres’ The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, whose publication was exactly 40 years ago. (This groundbreaking and inspirational book is a required text in my classes on Holocaust Cinema. Des Pres wrote about literature in a sophisticated as well as humanist manner that paved for the way for me to address film.) He proposed that Holocaust fiction “provides images whose formal purity bring some part, at least, of the world’s confusion to focus,” and established its function as a mediating framework. “But when the administration of death becomes a bureaucratic procedure,” he wrote, “when killing becomes computerized and efficiency is the only value left, then clearly we behold something more than the age-old disregard for life. In our time the outcome of power is hostility to life itself.”

Nemes was not familiar with The Survivor but told me during an onstage interview in New York that the film is based on Voices from Beneath the Ashes. Members of the Sonderkommando wrote down what they saw in Auschwitz and buried the information prior to the 1944 revolt. But the eyewitness accounts were unearthed after the war and included in Voices, which Nemes said helped inspire him to make Son of Saul.

He also acknowledged the inspiration of Elem Klimov’s masterpiece of 1985, Come and See, a Russian film that presents the ravages of World War II through the perspective of an adolescent who is trying to become a partisan.

Nemes, the Jewish grandson of survivors, articulated what makes his film different from other Holocaust movies, which tend to rely on rescue and reassurance: “Hope is part of the post-war conception of the Holocaust, revolving around survival. Films have concentrated on the exceptions – those who survived – but in Auschwitz, the rule was simply death.”

While death hovers in the background of his film, the hand-held camera stays on the haunted face of Saul. (At times, I was distracted by the superb actor’s physical resemblance to Francois Truffaut.) Nemes appreciated my mention that one of the first eloquent scholars about the primacy of the close-up was also a Hungarian Jew, Bela Balazs, who wrote in 1924, “In a truly artistic film the dramatic climax between two people will always be shown as a dialogue of facial expressions in close-up.” The director elaborated, “The human face is my reference. The Holocaust has become an abstraction, but if you focus on one person, it becomes more understandable in a visceral way.”

filmingRather than being a professional actor, Röhrig is a New York-based teacher. A graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary who has published seven volumes of poetry, he studied at the Hungarian University of Drama and Film. Even though he acted in two Hungarian movies – Armelle by András Sólyom in 1988, and Eszmélet by József Madaras in 1989 — Son of Saul is clearly a breakthrough for him.

The interview I moderated with Nemes and Röhrig [coming next week in EatDrinkFilms.com.-ed.] – after a December preview at the Sony screening room in Manhattan – was attended by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Although he rarely endorses fiction films about the Shoah, he called Son of Saul “a deeply gripping film that never slides into melodrama.”

If cinematic representations like Schindler’s List flirt with salvation, Nemes grounds his film in Saul‘s heightened perception of a death factory, thereby refusing to sentimentalize, sensationalize, or assume survival as the norm. As Nemes rightly said in accepting the prize for Best First Film from the New York Film Critics Circle on January 4, “First-time filmmakers should find new ways, new voices, and not take the language of film for granted.”


AnnetteAnnette Insdorf is​ a professor in the Graduate Film Program of Columbia’s School of the Arts, and served as Director of Undergraduate Film Studies for 27 years. She is the recipient of the 2008 Award for Excellence in Teaching from Columbia’s School of General Studies. From 1990-1995, she was Chair of the Graduate Film Division. She taught film history and criticism at Yale University from 1975 till 1988.

Dr. Insdorf is the author of Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski; Francois Truffaut, a study of the French director’s work; and the landmark study Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (with a foreword by Elie Wiesel). Her most recent book is Philip Kaufman​, indelible coverwhich Leonard Maltin called “a thoughtful, scholarly study of one of America’s most underrated filmmakers.”Her commentaries can be heard on many DVDs, and she has interviewed almost 200 film celebrities in her popular Reel Pieces series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.  She has been a juror at film festivals including Berlin, Galway, Locarno and Jerusalem, and is the panel moderator at the annual Telluride Film Festival. Dr. Insdorf’s books are available at many local bookstores or from Amazon and Indiebound.

EDF FilmStrip
saul closeSon of Saul: Living in the Death Factory

by Len Weiler

There’s a grassy field with some indistinct trees, the distant sound of birds, and a few clusters of vaguely perceived people on the periphery, although we have no idea who they are or what they are doing. Seemingly out of nowhere, someone is walking toward us. Like most everything else, this person is a blur, a mirage-like image of a man. He comes closer and closer, then stops just as his head and shoulders fill the screen and come into sharp focus. He is a rugged-looking guy, in rough clothing, with a face that might be handsome but instead is grim, noncommittal and emotionally dead.

So begins Son of Saul, the riveting, award-winning debut feature directed and co-written (along with Clara Royer) by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes. The man onscreen is Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It is October 1944, and Saul is in a horrific situation. He is a member of the Sonderkommando, a cohort of Jewish prisoners separated from the rest and forced to participate as laborers and functionaries in the extermination of their fellow Jews. The Sonnenkommando were not complicit with the SS; they did not volunteer. They were slaves, and any refusal to participate in this grisly work meant immediate death. Eventually, they too would be gassed. Very few survived the war. As I said, a horrific situation.

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Saul has become a robot, a zombie, so traumatizing is his work. The job includes removing corpses of victims from the gas chambers. One day he discovers among the bodies a young boy still breathing, but just barely. The boy soon dies, but Saul, believing the lad is his son, decides he must protect him from the ovens, find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish (the ancient mourner’s prayer honoring the deceased and sanctifying the name of God) and then give him a proper burial. Given the circumstances of Auschwitz, this seems a preposterous, impossible plan, but for Saul it becomes an obsession, a mission – one that sparks a reconnection with his humanity.

Son of Saul is not an easy film to watch and is probably not for the faint-hearted. Its vivid depiction of life and death in the extermination camps is unlike any other feature film or dramatization that I have seen; it provided an emotional, visceral and, yes, spiritual experience that stayed with me long after the lights came on. This was by design. Director Nemes’ aim was to put us in Auschwitz alongside the protagonist, to cut through the intellectual remove that typically allows us to merely watch rather than fully immerse ourselves in movies. This can feel uncomfortable and assaultive, but I believe it’s worthwhile, for providing some understanding of what it must have been like to be there.

Nemes believes that for cinema to deeply reach us emotionally, our imagination must be engaged. Too much information gets in the way. If the movie simply tells us about the death camp, we may learn some facts but we will not become as involved.

So while extensive research went into the development of the story and the mise-en-scène, in order to make the Auschwitz environment as realistic and historically accurate as possible, Nemes eschews the more typical documentary-style depiction of the camp. Rather, Son of Saul takes an indirect but boldly intense immersive approach – one that narrowly focuses on the experiences of the eponymous Saul. The film intentionally provides less visual information than we are accustomed to, and hews to a narrative framework that depicts only Saul’s immediate physical surroundings and the visual and auditory information available to him. The cinematography consists largely of close-ups and other shallow-focus photography. The sound is frequently enveloping. Even the shape of the screen image has been reduced, from the typical widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 to a narrower, more intimate, sometimes claustrophobic 1.37:1. All of this contributes to an ongoing atmosphere of internal and external chaos juxtaposed against the structure of oppressive camp order.

background outoffocusThere is no overarching attempt to convey the broad scope of the Holocaust. There are no panoramic shots of corpses stacked like firewood or of emaciated camp survivors, no melodramatic scenes spotlighting terrified families being torn apart, nor is there swelling soundtrack music to stir our hearts. We know of these things going in. They are shocking to see on a TV or movie screen, and on an emotional level they are pretty much unfathomable. Saul has been living in the nightmare of the extermination factory for so long, has seen so much horror so regularly, he no longer notices – or at least he tries not to.

As we see him working in this Inferno – escorting newly arrived trainloads of victims, taking their clothes and possessions, falsely reassuring them to keep them calm on the way to the “showers,” then removing the dead, washing the place and shoveling ashes – the camera takes Saul’s point of view, so nearly all of this is in the background, caught in glimpses and, or, out of focus.

But even through Saul’s P.O.V., we notice. We can’t help it. We see and hear all of this, and the effect on us is enhanced because of Saul’s indifference and because of the camera’s seeming indifference. Our imagination is engaged, we are compelled to participate, to fill in the gaps, to make what we are seeing and hearing comprehensible. So when, early on, as we observe a jumbled crowd being herded from the station to the death house and catch fleeting glimpses of individual men and women and their children – of their fear, desperation and confusion – and hear snatches of their voices and the barking of camp guards, the terror is palpable, unmistakable and very affecting.

crowd

Son of Saul also conveys through its imagery and cacophonous soundtrack, in a more immediate and personal way than any other film, the mechanization; the assembly line nature of the final solution. The industrialization of this process also implicates the obvious fact, frequently overlooked, that the Nazi extermination campaign was not just a product of uniquely evil psychopaths in the Hitler hierarchy. This was a military-industrial complex of murder designed, developed and operated by tens of thousands of people – ordinary people. As Nemes put it, “What people never understood about Auschwitz: It’s already there. It does not need the devil to be there. It was constructed by humans and designed to kill human beings, and so it was extremely functional. It’s not as if it was on another planet.” This is what humanity is capable of – not just them, us.

So what was the point of having Saul pursue the impossible by trying to give a dead boy a proper Jewish burial? Nemes, again: “That’s the question the audience has to ask and to answer during the course of the film. When there is no more hope, no more God, no more religion, is there still a possibility for a voice, a voice within that would allow us to remain human? That’s actually a part of the film. In this place where people are not only killed but burned, and their ashes scattered, in a way they are being erased from the world, erasing for these people their very history; so by doing what he does, Saul actually accomplishes the greatest revolt that there can be: Trying to give history back to someone.”

guntoheadGéza Röhrig plays Saul. Röhrig is a poet, teacher and scholar, but not a professional actor. Yet, he holds our attention and carries this film; he is in virtually every frame throughout its 109 minutes. He has deep, dark eyes and a face a bit like Belmondo with hints of Brando (but with Newman lips). It is a subtle and restrained performance through which he beautifully conveys Saul’s existential pain and agony, along with his reawakened passion, commitment and, eventually, hope.


LenWeilerLen Weiler, a film aficionado, has written about movies over the past four years on his blog, Notes on Films. He also has been a San Francisco Bay Area attorney since 1976, specializing in family law. 
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Son of Saul is showing in 35mm by the request of the filmmaker in some locations including the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, California through February 8 and the Music Box in Chicago. The Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri opens it in 35mm February 26.

For a list of current and upcoming U.S. engagements check here.

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