Friday, March 11, 2016
Nosh 6: 'Son of Saul' & More
By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (Review of Son of Saul)
The Hungarian film Son of Saul, having won the Cannes festival's top jury prize last summer, recently took the foreign film Oscar. The victory prompted from director Laszlo Nemes one of the more candid comments ever sparked by an Oscar: "It can be a poisoned gift ... maybe I'll never make a normal film again." And another from his star, Geza Rohrig, who called the Hollywood ceremony "not my world ... a near-clinical case of idiocy." If that sounds a bit ungrateful, it is also refreshingly sane.
Not a "normal film," Son of Saul is the first undoubtedly great movie I've seen since The Great Beauty two years ago. It is hard to take and impossible not to take seriously. Saul Auslander (Rohrig) is a Jewish worker in a Sonderkommando unit of men made to do the soul-crushing work at a Nazi Hungarian death camp, herding other Jews into gas rooms and open pits, coal-stoking the crematoria, stripping valuables for the kapos (overseers). For the Nazis the Jews are "pieces," raw material for looting.
Nemes shot almost every scene quite close to Saul (as a close-up film this rivals 2013's Locke), and his turbulent surroundings often turn blurry. In a maelstrom of fear, exhaustion, despair and hopeless empathy, the slave workers are "bearers of secrets," condemned to short service. Saul's dazed humanity awakens when a boy briefly survives gassing, but is then killed. He seeks to find a rabbi to recite kaddish over the body. This bewilders everyone else, but the mad mission is Saul's raft of moral sanity.
Nemes never tightly nails down Saul's orthodoxy or his precise relation to the boy and a woman in the camp. As a slave revolt becomes a sideline to his quest, Rohrig's fine, harried face never reaches for big effects. That is central to the story's rise above familiar formula. After Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift got all expressive in Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961, so sincerely translating Jewish suffering into an Oscar derby, Holocaust acting never fully recovered.
Possibly no other Shoah drama on film has been this present, this immersed in personal hell and crucified choice. The fiercely subjective style echoes Sokorov's Mother and Son, and the great battle scenes of Welles (Chimes at Midnight), Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) and Peckinpah (Cross of Iron). The ending struck me as a bit too "poetic," but why quibble? Compared to this amazing vision, the popular vampire, zombie and android movies are just more popcorn at the plex.
SALAD (A List)
What does the word "best" mean, regarding a Holocaust film? The barbed question leads to thorny answers, but here is my selection of the Twelve Best Holocaust Movies: A Film Unfinished (Hersonski, 2010), Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955), Son of Saul (Nemes, 2015), In Darkness (Holland, 2010), Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993), Lacombe, Lucien (Malle, 1974), The Pianist (Polanski, 2002), The Wannsee Conference (Schirk, 1984), Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985), The Quarrel (Cohen, 1991), The Truce (Rosi, 1997) and Hotel Terminus (Ophuls, 1988). Honorary mention, for so credibly bending the prison action genre: Escape From Sobibor (Gold, 1987).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Like many moviemakers, Citizen Welles esteemed France's supreme director, Jean Renoir: "His friends were without number and we all loved him as Shakespeare was loved, 'this side idolatry.' Let's give him the final word: 'To the question 'Is the cinema an art?' my answer is 'What does it matter?' You can make films or you can cultivate a garden. Both have as much claim to being an art as a poem by Verlaine or a painting by Delacroix. Art is making." (Orson Welles, interview, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 18, 1979)
ENTREE (Starlight Rising)
Jackie Brown became Pam Grier's great comeback, and Quentin Tarantino had, like Welles, a debt to Renoir: "How fervently the boy Tarantino had savored her 20s prime as 'queen of blaxploitation.' Pam put on that tiara with The Big Doll House in 1971 and said, 'I took on a statuesque demeanor, clean-faced but no makeup, and gave off the aura of I'm not here for the usual bullshit' ... Tarantino left his heroine off the screen for 23 minutes to introduce other figures, because 'I treat actors as stars, and stars as actors.' Tarantino's creative yeast was Jean Renoir's dictum that everyone has their reasons, and like Renoir he is not prone to heavy judgments." (From my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, coming soon from Luminare Press.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it's a distillation.
Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (Miramax Films; director Quentin Tarantino, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro)