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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas