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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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott