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Friday
Oct092015

NYFF: The Oscar Contender "Son of Saul"

Manuel here reporting from the New York Film Festival on Hungary's Oscar submission, a powerful debut film...

The Holocaust film is, as historical subgenres go, perhaps the most well-worn. From John Ford and George Stevens’ documentary footage of the camps liberation all the way through Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, cinema has been irrevocably tied to our cultural remembrance of that most barbaric killing machine. Cinema’s ability to record, to bear witness, has no doubt played a central role in this artistic canon. Of course, at the heart of the cinematic project of the Holocaust lie conflicting and controversial ethical questions. From Theodor Adorno’s “There is no poetry after Auschwitz” dictum to storied arguments about the validity and usefulness of recreating the images of Western civilization’s most gruesome chapter, directors, victims, and historians have asked plenty of hard to answer questions.

Does the depiction not merely replicate the dehumanization on which that enterprise depended? Is there a way to narrativize this barbaric act without simplifying history? Can cinema’s images ever do anything more than ring hollow when compared with the immensity of human life lost?

If all of this sounds heady as an intro to a review of László Nemes’s debut film Son of Saul, you should’ve heard leading man (and poet) Géza Röhrig and his director talk at length about these very issues while quoting Primo Levi at the press conference a few days ago...

Their eloquent Q&A felt more like an upper-level seminar on the subject, showing a degree of care and awareness that has become all but necessary when advocating making yet another Holocaust film. “I needed to find a new angle,” Nemes confessed, and while Son of Saul has both a visual and thematic angle that makes it stand out from the long cinematic history to which it is indebted, it’s clear such an angle was not taken lightly and what may look like a visual gimmick, is in fact, proof positive of the ethical orientation of the film itself.

Nemes’ film is centered on the Sonderkommando (Jews forced to work the camps). Throughout the entire film we follow just one of them, Saul. After seeing one young man survive the gas chamber only to be killed by a Nazi doctor soon after, and believing him to be his son, he spends the rest of the film attempting to give him a proper burial even as those around him plan a revolt. Called the “crematorium ravens” by Levi himself, Röhrig remarked that the Sonderkommando’s histories (which had for the longest time been buried in shame given their instrumental role in the camps themselves) remain vivid reminders that the Nazis had created the most sophisticated extermination machine in Western history: “They made Cains out of Abels… depriving from them even the solace of being innocent.” (Honestly, I could have listened to Röhrig’s dulcet-toned voice lecture me all day on this film)

 Nemes noted that he wanted to show “how limited the individual is in the concentration camp” and his framing reflects this. The camera follows Saul so closely that everything else is left in the background. We catch glimpses of bodies (or “pieces” as the Nazis call them), glances from fellow Jews, and blurred suggestions of the ghastly death machine that was Auschwitz but Nemes’ camera seldom lingers on them, sticking with Saul during long takes that create an intentional sense of claustrophobia and confusion. Röhrig’s pained determination don’t command the screen as much as fill it completely, so as to blot out the human tragedy around him, though, of course in so doing further making it ever present. It is an aesthetic way to both show and not show the camp; of denying the viewer any critical distance from the death all around, constricting our view and reducing us to follow Saul as he navigates the camp in his attempt at gracing this one body with the dignity denied the thousands around him.

Even in describing the film, I will not be able to recreate for you the visceral effect it has on you as a viewer, or the way it grabs you and never lets go. For a debut film it is astounding, and while that pesky Foreign Film race loves itself some curveballs, especially prior to nomination day, I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Nemes’ remarkable Son of Saul on the leadup to the Oscars.

Son of Saul, Hungary’s Foreign Film Oscar submission, screened as a Special Film Comment event Tuesday October 6th and will screen again on October 11th. The Cannes Grand Prix winner will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on December 18th.

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Reader Comments (4)

The fact that it will be released in the US in December makes it eligible in all Oscar categories (just like, for instance, Amour). Foreign films have good chances of nominations with Best Screenplay.

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I think it has a good chance of being nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay and Foreign Language film.

Not sure about Best Director or Best Actor though.

But anything could happen - just depends on how the Academy members feel about it when it is released in December.

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbettes streep

Technically unimpeachable. Gripping and heavy on atmospherics (great sound effects!) Abjection remains in the periphery, but for (sadly) a few moments. Surefire winner of BFLF and watch out for a nomination for its director, too. Problem is same old with these kind of movies. You know some (few) topics the Academy hold dear to their hearts will win or at least being nominated. No alarms and no surprises. That's whay I fear for CAROL and DANISH GIRL would let me down if nominated for pic (well intended, but generic in every conceivable way and, yes, I did see it! ) I want the blogosphere of pundits to look elsewhere for a change. Is it too much too ask? Nathaniel is right in telling people to see Colombian's entry "Embrace of the Serpent". But, at the end of the day, DANISH GIRL will be in every pundits top 10 anyway. ¿Embrace of the Serpent?: Missing. We know the oldest members of the Academy appreciate people telling apart their screeners so they can see what they "suppose" to see. Less films to see! Thanks for the job! . It seems to me it works that way, anyway. Maybe I'm wrong, but if it works for me, then.. SON OF SAUL is way much better a picture than DANISH GIRL will ever be. But unlike, say, IDA, tells nothing new about its subject matter. It does tell it witn a FRESH approach.A very impressive one. But SON OF SAUL won't need none of its multiple recommedations from here on. The Academy will take care of that. Nonetheless, good job Manuel.

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

bettes streep, best director is VERY possible for Son of Saul, which is a masterpiece. Loved it.

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

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