Movies We Like
Son of Saul
Any list of the most audacious feature film directing debuts would be headlined by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Continuing on it would probably include John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, The Coen Brother’s Blood Simple and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and maybe even Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Only Laughton and Hopper did not go on to have major directing careers, but since their reputations were equally made as actors, they still fit on the list. Time will tell, but Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut, Son of Saul, the Academy Award winning for Best Foreign Film, one day may be included on said list. It’s certainly the very definition of audacious.
The Holocaust film does not usually inspire as fresh material. Since Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List in ’93, the most notable title would be the totally over-rated Life is Beautiful. The most embarrassing would be the Robin Williams opus Jakob the Liar, and maybe the best would have been the German film The Counterfeiters. That is until Son of Saul came along. Nemes’ film, which he co-wrote with Clara Royer, brings a totally fresh approach to the material. Though only covering a 24-hour period, this is a new side of the Holocaust I have never seen in a film before. Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the film, shot in mostly moving long takes, follows a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig, powerfully played, an actor and poet who had previously only appeared a couple of films in the '80s) who works cleaning up dead victims in a crematorium, hiding the burnt evidence of the mass murder that is taking place daily. He is constantly shoved around, if not by the Nazi guards, then by his fellow Jews, who scramble to stay alive with a sort of command pecking order. His life appears to be a daze of a nightmare, with constant suffering, trauma and the a wait to join the others in the ashes.
And then one day, Saul comes upon a boy that he possibly recognizes, who has just barely survived a gassing massacre. He is suffocated by a Nazi doctor, but Saul takes it upon himself to get the boy a proper Jewish burial. Does he actually know the kid? There are references parceled out that make the answers moot. But what really matters is that Saul's adventure around the camp to find a rabbi to perform the ceremony gives him a sorta quest, and gives us, the viewer, a birds eye view of the horror of Auschwitz. The irony is in your face, in order for these prisoners to prolong their own individual lives they must be complicit with the Germans in the destruction of their own people. And obviously this isn’t Hollywood’s Dr. Strangelove or Sunset Boulevard irony, it’s not a dark comedy. This is European Art House Irony: humorless, cold and utterly riveting.
On one level the film is completely simple: a dead-man-walking finds a last minute chance at redemption or some kind of meaning, but the film is so ingeniously shot, with the lens usually tight on Saul or from his point of view, while long choreographed action is staged around him, it becomes more comparable to the “long-take, no cuts” film like Birdman and Russian Ark than Schindler’s List. Son of Saul almost plays like a first-person concentration camp video game as if Saul must dodge little dangers, collect items and find the wizard. It’s the same kind of video game style that the German film Run Lola Run brought us back in ’98, though instead of adrenaline-building, pop eye candy, this is closer to the tradition of the great Hungarian director Bela Tarr. It’s cold but concise (it’s not a shock that director Nemes worked under Tarr before making Son of Saul, though Nemes shows much more potential as a modern stylist then the old master ). Like another recently highly acclaimed Hungarian proto-horror-thriller, White God, Kornél Mundruczó‘s dog’s revenge flick, both films are just as much about flash as they are about brutality and cruelty. Though the research and fresh insight into the Holocaust are greatly on display, Son of Saul almost could have been about a man on Mars looking to bury a rabbit; and if the same amazing technique was used, it may have been nearly as powerful.