Tuesday, October 6, 2015

SON OF SAUL (2015) New York Film Festival 2015

Gavin Smith talks to director Laszlo Neemes and star Gee Rohrig at the NYFF press conference
I hate to say this but "the emperor has no clothes."

I say that because when SON OF SAUL started to make the rounds of festivals it was being hailed as one of the great films of the year and one of the greatest Holocaust films ever made. Many pieces talked abut how when people saw it they could hardly move from their seats. Everyone talked about how the way it was filmed- largely close ups of  Geze Rohrig- managed to put us inside the death camp.


Please don't take my contrary opinion to early reviews means I dislike the film, I don't I simply think that the initial reviews over sold the film, which I think is good, but terribly formal in its construction and by the numbers in it's telling.

The plot has Saul, worker tasked with cleaning up the dead in a death camp deciding to give a boy a decent burial. This sets Saul on a round about trip across the camp in order to secure the body and to find a rabbi who will help him bury "his son".

The film is told in what is best described extreme close up. The camera almost never leaves Saul's face. We never really see much beyond him, with most of the details as to what is going on conveyed by the aggressive soundtrack or snippets of images we see around Saul's head.

The gamble to shoot the film in close up and in 1:33 to 1,the Academy ratio really didn't work for me. Its not that the gambit fails for any reason other than Saul never really changes his expression. He is simply intense until almost the last moment of the film. I've read reviews saying that people have seen Rohrig reveal all sorts of emotion in through his eyes but to me it was all the same.

For me the real killer of the film was script which came off as highly artificial. The film very much feels like an artistic construct with a point about trying to buy one's piece of mind or trying to do one right thing. I felt as if very little of it real, more so when as all of the key bits of death camp lore was hit  and then the added layer of the possible prisoner revolt was thrown into the mix felt like it was trying to do too much and cover everything. Director Laszlo Nemes has some points and he very much wants to make them at all costs.

For me the trip around the camp was very artificial. As the film went on I started to make notes as the film hit each part of the camp. Would the film not cover some part of the functioning of the final solution? Nope it got it all from prisoner arrivals to disposal of the ash this film doesn't leave any thing out. The NYFF write up talks about the 9 circles of hell, I'd call it a grand scavenger hunt. While it does bring home what was going on in the camps in ways we've not really seen before, it still feels artificial.

I think part of the problem with the film is something that they talked about a great deal at the post screening press conference which was the seemingly big revelation that the prisoners helped the Nazi's kill all the people. It was a statement that kind of had me cocking my head sideways and wanting to ask the people on stage if they hadn't read on the camps before they made the movie. The complicity of the prisoners is an uncomfortable truth of the Holocaust. The fact we see the prisoners helping things along, while trying to save themselves apparently rattles a lot of people even when they should know that's what happened.

Still there is no getting around the fact the film is quite good on it' own terms. It is in someways it is the kick in the pants it was aiming to be from start to finish.

If the subject interests you its worth a shot,but if not you're not missing a masterpiece despite what some writers claim.

The film plays tonight  (Tuesday the 6th) at 9pm. It encores on Sunday at 9pm as well. For tickets and more information go here.

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