Son of Saul (Hungary, 2015)

621d89caea0e0fce37fa913bd4c6d534_500x735Directed by: László Nemes. So I definitely need to broaden my Hungarian film intake, because the only other one I remember seeing was also about WWII, The Notebook. (And apparently Bela Tarr is someone to check out ASAP). All that aside, this film came highly recommended, but I had some pretty low assumptions of it going in—that it would be a typical Oscar “prestige picture”, that it would be a “Holocaust movie” instead of a great film about the Holocaust. This is definitely not Schindler’s List, and it’s definitely not Life is Beautiful. With all due respect to both of those films (which I enjoyed very much), this is an infinitely more mature film, and if you have a stake in the ongoing discussion about the societal function of film and art taken from history, then this is an infinitely more useful film than most cinematic representations of the Holocaust, which either use the horrors to assert the undying spark of human goodness, or spend two hours wallowing in human misery with little or no understanding of why. And maybe that’s why I loved this movie so much, because around this time I was plugging away at Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah, to which this is intellectually and philosophically closer than to any other cinematic representation of the Holocaust I’ve seen. The justification I usually give for reading about the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the war in general is the same reason I give for subjecting my self to Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, in two-hour chunks every few months or so: it’s fascinating to me, and I crave to understand these events and their significance. But Lanzmann (who loved the film, by the way) has voiced the opinion that this itself is an obscenity, to demand answers. For him, there is no why (a quote from  Primo Levi who was quoting an SS officer) there is only evil, and evil must be opposed, period. For now I won’t go into my own grappling with that position, but it certainly struck me that this movie wasn’t offering any kind of “why”—Son of Saul places you immediately in the subjective position of the setting, and you are there, along with Saul, whisked away in the confusing action, with no time to breathe, desperate to learn and glean and understand, but always a few steps behind. There’s a particular, almost Kafkaesque (sorry!) kind of chaos in this film, and I really do mean chaos. These individuals in the Sonderkommando seem to have resigned their lives to this awful fate, where it’s just their job to carry out these menial chores, to endure horrors, to endure their own dehumanization, clinging to basically nothing. But then, as the film unfolds, we see that they are all holding onto something. For the others, it’s the promise of an uprising, direct political action. But for Saul, he has no interest in any of that, he finds meaning in his dedication, basically his obsession, to giving a proper Jewish burial to the child he believes is his son (but which the film never really confirms), to find a Rabbi to perform the last rites, etc. So that becomes the plot of the film, Saul’s quest to balance the obligations being imposed on him by the rest of the Sonderkommando to help them with their insurrection, and his own private mission, and most importantly, the obligation to stay on the good side of the Nazi soldiers and stay alive. The plight of the Sonderkommando is something that the Anglo world has been pretty ignorant of, which makes this film all the more valuable as a piece of art and as an educational tool. While we’re on art, though, this is undoubtedly one of the most incredible films I’ve seen in years, and the director’s playful use of focus to convey the limits of cognition in extreme survival, the smallness of the subjective world in times of extreme stress, to have the audience clinging to Saul as our only guidepost in this hazy, insane world—this is one of the most daring things I’ve seen in cinema since Alfred Hitchcock killed his protagonist halfway into the film. If there’s any movie in recent years that everyone needs to see, this is one of them. This is not Oscar bait, this is legit.

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One response to “Son of Saul (Hungary, 2015)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2016 | Offhand Reviews·

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