Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 05, 2015 10:14 am 
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An obsessive Sonderkommando's view of Auschwitz

It grew out of 38-year-old Hungarian director László Nemes's years of studying documents on the Sonderkommandos, the Nazi concentration camp prisoners forced to do most of the work of the killing. Son of Saul impresses but also troubles. To begin with it has been regarded as taboo to show the actual extermination process, which it does. It does it indirectly, showing all only dimly behind Saul (Géza Röhrig), the central character, a Sonderkommando at the Auschwitz-Birkenwald death camps who becomes obsessed with an effort to give a boy who has been murdered -- his illegitimate son, or one he designates thus -- a proper Jewish burial. That is the fanciful part; what's realistic is the planning and execution of the October 7, 1944 Sonderkommando uprising that simultaneously takes place around Saul, and eventually sweeps him up despite his efforts to ignore it.

Nemes is a pupil of Béla Tarr and like Tarr uses long takes, though no scene lasts long. They're shot in richly textured handheld 35mm color in Academy ratio, the square format the better to focus on the head of Saul, with everything around him often distant or blurred. To fill in detail of the unseen periphery there is a terrifying, often mysterious but still realistic sound track, which took five months of editing to produce.

Son of Saul has the kind of spectacular opening sequence that can overwhelm a picture. It depicts one full iteration of the chaotic but relentless process from arrival of a group of prisoners to their extermination to when the same Sonderkommandos (including Saul, always in the foreground) who have herded the prisoners to their deaths and dragged out the "pieces" to be cremated, scrub the gas chamber floor. (Later we see great piles of ashes being shoveled into the river).

The glimpses we get of the boy's body show him to have been beautiful and healthy. Saul notices him because, almost uniquely, he has been found still alive after the gassing, gasping for breath. In the distance Saul sees the "doctor" go and finish off the boy.

This opening is the last thing that's clearly sequential and organized. From then Saul seems to be wandering around on his own. Though they still were executed like the others, after about four months, the Sonderkommandos were given special treatment. They were fed and housed separately. They could move freely among units of the camp. Thus Auschwitz from the Soderkommando point of view is more frangible than we might expect. And also more confusing and chaotic. The prisoners speak among themselves in a koiné of primitive Yiddish so they could understand each other whether Hungarian, Polish, German, etc. The dialogue is laconic, monosyllabic. This too is confusing.

So, Hell barely seems organized, though the killing machine that is the camp's purpose moves on relentlessly. Nemes maintains the intensity, even if the chaos becomes overwhelming. He includes key details from his research, such as the use of flamethrowers and open fires to execute and cremate prisoners when the crematoria became overloaded with incoming victims. This we see in the distance, like the stacked naked bodies, and other horrors. Always there are shots, screams, and shouts of abuse in the air.

Saul's frantic, obsessive quest to give the boy a proper burial is also, of course, an effort to save his own soul in a world God seems to have abandoned. Though Saul and the other Sonderkommandos, he knows, are dead, he seeks moral survival. The artificiality of this certainly is no worse than the jarringly lighthearted treatment of death camps in Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. But in time I began to find the chaos disorienting, Saul's mission to respect one corpse a little hard to care abut when more important things, like the deaths of thousands, were happening around him. Mike D'Angelo made a similar observation. Nonetheless Nemes has made a "terrifyingly accomplished" film and "a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload," as Justin Chang wrote in his admiring and detailed Variety review. The Cannes jury clearly also thought so. Also true what Boyd van Hoeij said in Hollywood Reporter, that this is "a powerful aural and visual experience that doesn’t quite manage to sustain itself over the course of its running time, but is a remarkable — and remarkably intense — experience nonetheless." At the New York Film Festival press and industry screening Q&A, Géza Röhrig, the star, who identifies more as a poet than as an actor, was as articulate in his answers as the filmmaker, if not more so. Nemes consciously eschewed prettiness, unlike Koltai whose 2005 Fateless sought it.

Son of Saul/Saul fia, 107 mins., co-written by László Nemes and Clara Royer, debuted at Cannes in Competition in May 2015 and won the Grand Prix. Screened for this review as part of "Film Comment Selects" presented as a Special Event sidebar of the New York Film Festival. Included in a dozen festivals, with theatrical release in France (to raves, AlloCiné press rating 4.2) 4 Nov. 2015; US 18 Dec. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Metacritic rating 87%.

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