Son of Saul – Cannes 2015

Photo: Cannes Film Festival


Director: László Nemes
Stars: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
* * * * * (out of 5)

It starts with one of the most powerful, singular opening scenes in recent cinema: an out-of-focus frame, into which staggers a wraith-like figure who we follow in continuous, cramped close-up, while the wider world of chaotic, industrial-scale horror around him – Jews rounded up, tricked, stripped and loaded into a gas oven to their deaths, then the screaming and hammering from inside the chamber walls – remains both thankfully blurred and muffled, yet nightmarishly vivid, while the man rapidly, mechanically starts sorting the discarded clothes and possessions.

If we should bear witness to the Unwatchable, then László Nemes’s searing feature debut imagines a brilliant, apposite treatment of both his protagonist Saul, an Auschwitz-Birkenau Hungarian Sonderkommando – the prisoners assigned to facilitate the Final Solution in the concentration camps – and the Holocaust. An intensely first-person story, for the next 100 minutes we scarcely leave Saul’s side. The bodies pulled from the oven, the blood and vomit scrubbed from the floors, the casual sadism of the Nazi guards and hostility of his fellow workers, all are subsumed to Saul’s mission: to retrieve the body of a boy he finds still briefly breathing amid the carnage, one he claims is his own son, find a rabbi and give him a proper Jewish burial. Even inside this pit of hell on Earth.

Nemes is a former protégé of Hungary’s reigning cinema giant Bela Tarr, but whereas Tarr could spend literally hours going from A to B, Son of Saul is a blur of continual motion, never stopping to orientate its audience. We become as absorbed and marooned in Saul’s world as he is. Bit by bit, as he races around bullying, bribing, begging to achieve his goal, a background picture jerkily emerges from the shallow focus imagery; whispers of an upcoming planned escape and a possible culling of the Sonderkommando. Saul will allow neither to distract him and at one point, his one-track mind obstructs the nascent uprising. “You failed the living for the dead,” someone sneers. But in the charnel house around them, who’s to say what those definitions really mean any more.

Technically this is a stunning achievement. One might pity the production designer, whose work isn’t overtly showcased on a film with such a restricted visual strategy – made even more claustrophobic by cinematographer Matyas Erdely shooting in the cropped, retro 4:3 aspect ratio many filmmakers now experiment with. But in fact the fleeting, patchwork glimpses of the camp and its environs actually register as strongly as any wide shot. The layered sound design bears an equally heavy load, the groaning machinery, rifle cracks or snippets of Yiddish, German or Hungarian that float up out of the maelstrom further immersing us in Saul’s nightmare.

If the film’s absolute commitment to its stripped-down aesthetic gradually becomes exhausting, a more allusive, poetic shift in style helps re-energize the film’s climax. From start to finish, however, Röhrig’s mostly silent performance is enthralling and the idea that this is a first-time feature simply remarkable. Whether you’ve watched documentary (Night and Fog, Shoah) or fiction (Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List), you’ve never seen this subject treated in this way, Nemes effectively forcing us to re-question a spectacle cinema of such horrors. A certain awards contender here at Cannes and throughout the year ahead, Son of Saul is harrowing, essential, liberating viewing.

Damián Szifrón – Wild Tales / AnOther Magazine

Wild Tales director Damián Szifrón on Cannes, Disaster Comedies and the best movies ever made

Gatecrashing the upmarket Cannes Film Festival last year, like a rock star at a classical recital, came Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales. Amid the self-consciously highbrow, oh-so-serious Palme D’Or contenders, Wild Tales was a refreshing blast of foul air: a wickedly funny, audaciously brutal compendium of six revenge tales – from a sting-in-the-tale plane journey via an escalating road rage vendetta to the wedding reception from hell – packed into one defiantly disreputable feature.

Its very incongruity (you’re generally meant to respectfully admire Cannes competitors, not gleefully enjoy them) perhaps obscured Szifrón’s sophisticated filmmaking and resonant skewering of contemporary social injustice. But the film’s recent Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nomination proved Cannes was no fluke. And the boyishly affable, smartly-minded and attired 39-year-old Szifrón (imagine a Latin-American Christopher Nolan) is now high on Hollywood’s wish list, having just signed up to direct a US thriller.

On Wild Tales’s blend of black comedy and violence…
“Our submission form for Cannes asked for “genre” and we were three hours discussing what to put. I think we settled on “disaster comedy”! It has a lot of humour, but when you see a comedy you feel a lot more comfortable – Buster Keaton or Ben Stiller, you know it’s going to end well, you’re safe. Not here. It’s also not performed as a comedy. I remember directing the actors in the road rage episode as if they were in a Michael Haneke film, but I was shooting it and talking to the rest of the crew as if I was making a Road Runner cartoon…”

On the film’s surprise Cannes inclusion…
“I’m not really a festival filmmaker and many of my favourite films, you won’t see in Cannes, you buy them on DVD. But when [festival director] Thierry Frémaux called and said he loved the film, I felt wow, a little change of direction in my life. I thought Cannes would be a very cold, snobbish place and that I wouldn’t be well received. But as soon as I read the reviews and tweets, I thought, OK, this is working.”

On the anthology film concept…
“For Wild Tales’s DNA, I go back to an anthology book from my childhood called Crime Tales. I loved the cover and the index with so many titles. Also Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and Alfred Hitchcock Presents… I was developing other screenplays and these new ideas started to come, so I tried to compress them. The result was these powerful stories, simple but very layered and I discovered they were all connected by the same themes. So without even noticing I had a new screenplay in my hands.”

On revenge…
“Revenge is here but more the pleasure of losing control or crossing the line – both for the characters, the audience – and the writer! And the ending, with the wedding story, goes to another place of compassion and rediscovering the other, getting conscious about the love that’s present in every hate story. I’m not a vengeful person, I feel too guilty, but as a writer I can exorcize lots of things that maybe regular people can’t. Otherwise I might be more like one of the characters in the film!”

On subconscious writing…
“I wrote these stories in a much freer way than usual. For years I immersed myself in writing a science-fiction film and huge ideas about the universe and intelligence. I discovered while dreaming you can influence the dream and those aspects of imagination. So now when I’m awake I try to write in that way, close my eyes, see the scenarios and wait to see what happens next.”

On working in Hollywood and the great ‘70s movies…
“Making a film outside Argentina would be interesting if it’s my movie. American movies from the ‘70s – Coppola’s The Godfather, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and The Shining, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View and All the President’s Men – those movies are the best ever made. The dramas, the thrillers are intelligent and powerful, very grounded in real life and directors had a lot of freedom and support from the industry. If you make a film that way, it’s always going to be modern.”

Wild Tales is released in cinemas on March 27.

To read the original article at AnOther click here: Damián Szifrón on Cannes, Disaster Comedies & Revenge

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