Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Son of Saul - review

Son of Saul is finally here. I first heard about the film during last year's Cannes Film Festival, when I came across this five-star review on the Guardian website.

The plot is beyond horrific and made me think 'that will be a film for the guts': Saul is a sonderkommando in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, meaning his job is to get his fellow prisoners ready for the gas chamber (without panicking them - "there will be coffee after!", someone yells, "and we need carpenters!"), their bodies out of the chamber and to the crematorium, and finally their ashes dumped in a nearby pond. A boy barely survives the gas chamber, only to die minutes later: Saul recognises him as his son and decides to give him, against good reason and in the face of the surrounding hell, a proper Jewish burial. This leads to an attempt to hide the body, find a rabbi etc.

A sub-plot sees his fellow sonderkommandos and some kappos (both groups received better treatment) attempting to photograph the horror and get the photographs out of the camp, as well as planning an uprising.

So, the story itself is intense. Director Lazlo Nemes gives it even more power by always focusing his camera on Saul. We face him head on as he watches new victims arrive, we follow him closely as he walks across the changing room emptying the pockets of the clothes left behind by the people we can hear screaming and banging in the gas chamber next door. His face is rather impassible. We are deep inside horror.

As audience members, there is no escape: you have to watch and feel your stomach tie itself up in knot. We hope he will achieve his goal, even though we are unsure why he is pursuing it (at one point one of his mates tells him "you have no son!"). We also hope the film will go all Hollywood on us, give us some distance from the action, but there is none of that. We are focused on Saul 90% of the time, and at the edges of the screen, we can see bodies and scared women, we can hear shouting German Nazis and bullet shots.

Nemes shows us what happened, and how it happened - the truth of it all.

But he does not look to explain why. So what does it bring to the table? My husband refused to watch the film, saying he felt it was exploitative. "I don't need to know how massacres happened. Families were decimated and some people go off and get funding and make money out of their stories. The Holocaust is the worst period of humanity: how can they make it watchable like that?"

It did make me think how working on this film must have felt (a choreographer is listed in the end credit) but still my conscience tells me this is a profound film, effective and powerful.

The next day, I watched the Storyville documentary My Nazi Legacy on BBC iplayer. It is sort of completely opposite of Son of Saul. Human rights laywer Philippe Sands follows two German men whose fathers were high profile Nazis, and says himself at the beginning that he wants to understand why and how it all happened.

He talks with them at length about their families, how they deal with this heritage, how they feel about the atrocities their fathers committed or helped commit, and takes them on the locations of some of those atrocities. Sands takes us and them back 70 years, and tries to understand: one man simply says "my dad loved Hitler and would have done anything for him", while the other refuses to believe his was guilty of any part in the Holocaust, despite evidence unearthed by Sands. Another great watch.

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