Sunday, February 7, 2016

László Nemes new film "Son of Saul" at Landmark Theatres: Jan 22 - Mar 3

Given high praise by The Guardian as the number one film screened in the United States last year, László Nemes has created in his award-winning, unlikely directorial debut, "'Son of Saul', an Expansion of the Language of Holocaust Films". Understandably even the century's most confident filmmakers quail before the terrifying responsibility of massacre, torture and sadism that is the Holocaust. Only documentaries have successfully addressed the immensity of the subject, namely Alain Resnais haunting "Night and Fog" the plumbing of the personal in Claude Lanzmann's monumental achievement "Shoah", and the unseen revelation that is Alfred Hitchcock's recently reconstructed "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey". The latter recently detailed in HBO's "Night Will Fall", this is a "Recalling of a Film From the Liberation of the Camps" that features some of the most unflinching footage dedicated to film in the whole of the 20th Century. Few have ever gotten as close to the three works mentioned above to penetrating the mysteries of this most cataclysmic of human horrors. Neme's film, "Son of Saul" approaches the untouchable by taking the viewer into the close-viewed final chapter of it's protagonist's life as a Sonderkommando in a unnamed concentration camp. This is a raw, pitiless cinema that pulls no punches, and does the "unrepresentable" in it's filmic fictionalization of human dignity amid the torrent of the Holocaust.

In his "Atrocity Exhibitionism" for Film Comment, Stefan Grissemann details why "Son of Saul" is an opportunistic and highly problematic work. How in making a Holocaust drama a renewed exciting and vital storytelling experience, Nemes courts the dangers of fashioning a provocative vision of entertainment. Conversely in the same Cannes 2015 Roundtable, Jonathan Romney opens his review establishing the "Dead Man Walking" of Nemes’ troubling film conveys the Holocaust’s full horror by keeping it out of focus. More significant than their appraisal of the film, "Shoah" and "Last of the Unjust" documentarist Claude Lanzmann, famous for his disapproval of dramatic representations of the Holocaust on screen, and even well-meaning and educational entertainment's "Threat to the Incarnation of the Truth" surprised everyone by praising Neme's film, calling it the “anti–Schindler’s List”. Lanzmann specifically commended the film’s focus. Rather than presuming to evoke the Holocaust in broad strokes, Nemes concentrates on the experience of one man, a Hungarian Jew named Saul interned in an unspecified concentration camp. As a Sonderkommando, his work is a form of complicity pressed into the service of murder, that did not ensure its members’ survival: the Sonderkommando were destined to be rapidly killed in their turn. It is our vantage into this most untenable of horrors that sets Nemes' film apart from contemporary Holocaust drama, to quote from Jonathan Romney's Film Comment review; "Son of Saul is neither melodramatic nor mundanely centered on redemption, par excellence a theme devalued by cinema. Nemes’s film is, most immediately, about what we do and don’t see, what can and can’t be shown."

Claude Lanzmann himself resurfacing in 2013 with the release of his extended interviews with the last living Ältester of the Judenrat in his belated documentary, shot in the 1970s in Rome and not completed until present day about the divisive Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. In this documentary Lanzmann has gifted the world a "Fascinating, Subtle Study in Survivor Non-Guilt" and "A Remarkable Companion to the Document of 'Shoah'". But rather than simply shaping the existing footage, Lanzmann returned to Theresienstadt and to Vienna, where the camera follows him into courtyards that once housed gallows and still-empty synagogues. This where the new film diverges dramatically it's predecessor; Lanzmann is as much a presence as Rabbi Murmelstein. "Last of the Unjust" watches as complex and discomfiting reflection on one man's role in the supposedly comfortable arrangement that was part of the pantomime of ostensible good faith after the Anschluss. The Nazis coerced leading Jews to be their administrative elders, or Ältester, a queasy use of Judeophobe-propagandist terminology, of which Murmelstein is the last surviving member. In response to interpretations of the documentary's objectives, Stephen Smith of the Shoah Foundation disputes the idea that Lanzmann is an apologist for Rabbi Murmelstein; “This was Lanzmann giving him a chance to clear his name, but one must not understate the complexity,” he said. “He’s good at discerning and getting to the bottom of the complexity of the Holocaust. It may not be desirable to everyone’s view, but I think it’s one we need to see and to grapple with."