By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: Son of Saul

Sticking with me despite having screened a few days ago is newcomer László Nemes’ Son of Saul, a wild card in Competition that is surely destined for prizes this coming Sunday. This was almost expected, however, as a first feature competing for the Palme d’Or surely speaks to its artistic significance–especially with other vetted auteurs walking the Croisette this year in different programs.

saul

Son of Saul is a heart-wrenching story that literally follows Saul Auslander (unknown Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig), an Auschwitz prisoner working as part of the Sonderkommando, the work detail unit that was responsible at gun point for disposing of gas chamber corpses and cleaning the facilities.

From open to close it’s an incredibly heavy subject for a first feature, and it’s remarkable that the result is a film that doesn’t look or sound like one. Nemes situates his camera primarily in the foreground and behind Saul’s head throughout the harrowing drama, which artfully depicts a man’s attempt to save his son’s body from being cremated. This shallow focus composure is certainly a significant stylistic decision that works well and stands out, but is that why this film is staying with me? I’m not sure it’s that simple.

Call it a gimmick, but there’s a ghostly, haunting vibe here, especially in the production design (and of course the historical substance). You and I have seen other films with a similar setting, but Son of Saul really moves through this concentration camp with an overwhelming sense of urgency and context that is unfamiliar. Time is running out, and it’s never sure who will be disposed of next, and every step the film (and Saul) takes keeps this pace moving until the devastating conclusion.

But this foregrounded focus aesthetic has alienated some critics, and ironically, despite being filmed in 35mm and projected on a bona fide reel as such, Son of Saul has been described here (pejoratively), as a video game, though if I am being honest it seems like an off-handed attempt (by people who most certainly do not play video games) to undermine the film’s minimalist and respectful endeavor by referring it something of a “lesser” medium.

In other words, that criticism is lazy. By only really showing the horrors of the Holocaust in the periphery of the frame, oftentimes just out of focus (do we really need to see this darkness in utter clarity?), there is a painstaking quality to the production that really keeps it from separate, and distinctive, from other World War II pictures. In fact, it’s the restraint of a mature (yet still fresh) filmmaker to not manipulate us like many others would. The takes are long; the stares into pits of fire are even longer. The details in the production are what sell it. The red X painted across Saul’s work outfit marks him and his fate as a target, but speaking broadly this film arrives on the Croisette already attached with one. Thankfully it’s not lost within the memory cracks as the Festival charges on; it’s fundamentally too important for that to happen.

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“When Bay keeps these absurd plot-gears spinning, he’s displaying his skill as a slick, professional entertainer. But then there are the images of motion—I hesitate to say, of things in motion, because it’s not clear how many things there are in the movie, instead of mere digital simulations of things. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a car chase through London, seen from the level of tires, that could have gone on for an hour, um, tirelessly. What matters is that the defenestrated Cade saves himself by leaping from drone to drone in midair like a frog skipping among lotus pads; that he and Vivian slide along the colossal, polished expanses of sharply tilting age-old fields of metal like luge Olympians. What matters is that, when this heroic duo find themselves thrust out into the void of inner space from a collapsing planet, it has a terrifyingly vast emptiness that Bay doesn’t dare hold for more than an instant lest he become the nightmare-master. What matters is that the enormous thing hurtling toward Earth is composed in a fanatical detail that would repay slow-motion viewing with near-geological patience. Bay has an authentic sense of the gigantic; beside the playful enormity of his Transformerized universe, the ostensibly heroic dimensions of Ridley Scott’s and Christopher Nolan’s massive visions seem like petulant vanities.”
~ Michael Bay Gives Richard Brody A Tingle

How do you see film evolving in this age of Netflix?

I thought the swing would be quicker and more violent. There have been two landmark moments in the history of French film. First in 1946, with the creation of the CNC under the aegis of Malraux. He saved French cinema by establishing the advance on receipts and support fund mechanisms. We’re all children of this political invention. Americans think that the State gives money to French films, but they’re wrong. Through this system, films fund themselves!

The other great turning point came by the hand of Jack Lang in the 1980s, after the creation of Canal+. While television was getting ready to become the nemesis of film, he created the decoder, and a specific broadcasting space between film and television, using new investments for film. That once again saved French film.

These political decisions are important. We’re once again facing big change. If our political masters don’t take control of the situation and new stakeholders like Netflix, Google and Amazon, we’re headed for disaster. We need to create obligations for Internet service providers. They can’t always be against film. They used to allow piracy, but now that they’ve become producers themselves, they’re starting to see things in a different light. This is a moment of transition, a strong political act needs to be put forward. And it can’t just be at national level, it has to happen at European level.

Filmmaker Cédric Klapisch