How art can be of any use when it comes to understanding the Holocaust is a debate which has troubled many great minds over the years. Some worried that poetry would simply be "barbaric"; some believe the topic is still too hot to handle; others ponder as to whether it was ever up to the task. Michel Haneke famously scorned Schindler's List for using a gas chamber scene as a nail biter. Whatever the case may be, this week on the Croisette a 38 year old from Hungary- amazingly with his first feature film- has delivered an incredible cinematic milestone on the topic.
Lászlów Nemes' Son of Saul (Saul Fia) is without doubt the most striking film of the festival so far, but it is also, perhaps, the most striking dramatisation of the Holocaust ever to be put on film. Excuse the hyperbole, but the key word is dramatisation. The director doesn’t seem to be out to haunt the viewer in the same way that most films on the subject have done before. He doesn't even, relatively speaking at least, seem to want the viewer to delve into too much reflection either. This first-person journey through that specific hell is an entirely visceral experience. And although Nemes apparently studied both History and Screenwriting in University, this is perhaps more a thriller than anything else. No matter. Much like Elem Germanowitsch Klimow's peerless Come and See- a spiritual forbearer for sure- Son of Saul rather boldly attempts to put you inside the head of a Hungarian Jew in that very moment. In Auschwitz, as the Third Reich raced to its demise.
In a near square shaped Academy screen ratio we come slowly into focus on a Hungarian man named Saul (Géza Röhrig). He's rushing around, looking totally knackered, ushering concentration camp inmates off trains. We're told that the red X on the back of his jacket signifies that he is a worker of the Sonderkommandos unit, a group of death-camp inmates who worked at disposing the bodies from the gas chamber in return for extra food and rations. The action plays out in a near-constant shallow focus close up of the man. His haunted face imprisoned within the dimensions of the screen, with only frantic, blurry glimpses of the madness around him.
Nemes shows us the vivid horror of this man's day-to-day life as, under the watchful eye of the camp's S.S. commanders, the unit go about there debased daily jobs. They pillage the jackets and wallets of the dead for valuables; pile up the lifeless naked bodies; scrub the chambers down; and shovel away the ashes. The system is relentless. Mass extermination as a daily grind. But somehow a young lad just about survives. It soon becomes apparent that the boy is Saul's child. The German soldiers are quick to finish the job and Saul, a lifeless mechanical entity up until this point, becomes determined to see that the child receives the proper burial rights. He toils and suffers. The viewer joins him for the gruelling ride.
The style with which Nemes portrays these events is remarkable. Referencing the long unbroken shots of his mentor Bela Tarr (whom he worked with for two years), but choosing to pack these shots with heaps more pace and energy than Tarr’s usual output, the director opens a small but suffocating window to what that life might have been like. The 4:3 screen ratio has, in recent years, been employed to suggest a sense of claustrophobia (Gus Van Sant's Elephant for example). Nemes seems to be using it for something else. His screen reminds us of a pressure cooker, or a bathroom window, or both. Such connotations suggest the obvious.
Extra scrutiny- beyond the confines of festival reporting- is surely required. But whatever dust this kicks up in the next year or so it's safe to say that Nemes has delivered one of the great cinematic debuts of modern times. Son of Saul reminds us of the horror of course, as if we needed it, but it also reminds us of some other things too, thanks mainly to the evident skill of this director. Shot on 35mm (also the only film this year to be projected in that endangered format), we are reminded of just how textured and endlessly fascinating a face can look on celluloid, and also, of course, how damned immersive this medium can be. Son of Saul whispers "Come and see, isn't this frightening..."
The response has been rapturous. Expect prizes out the wazoo next saturday. The first hand on the Palme for 2015.
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