Friday, December 18, 2015

Son of Soul

The Auschwitz-Birkenau-set “Son of Saul” opens at the start of a work shift, when a few men with red X’s painted on the backs of their coats herd a large group of new arrivals indoors, reassuring them that they’ll soon be fed and given job assignments. The camp’s newcomers are told to strip and pick up their clothes and belongings after their group shower — from which, of course, they’ll never emerge.

The marked men wait on the other side of the shower door for the screams to stop so they can resume their work as the Sonderkommando, Jews tasked with the grunt labor of carrying out Hitler’s Final Solution.

That five-minute preamble is a harrowing and brilliant sequence, encapsulating the Nazis’ brutally efficient approach to genocide. Cinematically, though, it’s most notable for director László Nemes’s extreme close-up throughout of Sonderkommando Saul (Géza Röhrig), whose face is a mask of silent detachment.

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Possessed by the same single-minded intensity that drives its protagonist’s every step, “Son of Saul” plunges the viewer into a hell that exists beyond the limits of comprehension or representation. A terrifyingly accomplished first feature for 38-year-old Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes, this indelible portrait of Auschwitz in the latter days of WWII sticks to the limited vantage of a Jewish prisoner who, immune to either hope or fear, becomes bent on carrying out a single, desperate act of moral survival. The result is as grim and unyielding a depiction of the Holocaust as has yet been made on that cinematically overworked subject — a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload that recasts familiar horrors in daringly existential terms. Further festival bookings, post-screening arguments and a narrow commercial life are assured for this rare debut film to secure a competition berth at Cannes.

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A season in hell is what this devastating and terrifying film offers – as well as an occasion for meditating on representations of the Holocaust, on Wittgenstein’s dictum about matters whereof we cannot speak, and on whether these unimaginable and unthinkable horrors can or even should be made imaginable and thinkable in a drama. There is an argument that any such work, however serious its moral intentions, risks looking obtuse or diminishing its subject, although this is not a charge that can be levelled at Son of Saul.

By any standards, this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is remarkable. Director László Nemes’s film has the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See – which surely inspired its final sequence – and perhaps of Lajos Koltai’s Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom Nemes was for two years an assistant, but without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is concerned at some level with exerting a conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.

Son of Saul is set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, and one Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul (played by Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners given humiliating and illusory privileges as trusties, with minor increases in food ration in return for their carrying the bodies from the gas chambers to pyres to be burned, then carting the ashes away to be dumped. The task is carried out at a frantic, ever-accelerating rate around the clock, as the Allies close in. Among the dead, Saul discovers the body of his young son, and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give the boy a proper burial in secret, using pleas, threats, blackmail and bribes – with jewellery (called the “shiny”) that he steals from the bodies – to achieve his aim. Saul’s desperate mission is carried out with the same urgent, hoarse whispers and mutterings as another plot in progress: a planned uprising, which Saul’s intentions may upset. And all the time, the Sonderkommando are aware, through this network of whispers, that they themselves will be executed in due course by their Nazi captors.

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