Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Son of Saul, 2015 Winner

Son of Saul

Directed by: László Nemes
Distributor:  Mozinet
Released:  May 2015
Country: Hungary

Opening scene of the film:  In 1944, Saul Ausländer helps lead men, women, and children into a train that takes them to Auschwitz, assists getting them all into the death shower room, listens outside to the panic occurring inside the walls, and then searches through the clothing of those just exterminated to find anything of value to give to the Nazis.  Next, the movie starts to become depressing.

Saul is no evil Nazi guard though, but is instead a Sonderkommando member, a Hungarian Jew forced at the threat of death to assist with the malevolent operations of the concentration camp.  Up front, we are told these prisoners won’t last in their jobs more than a few months before being exterminated themselves.  It is jarring to see Saul intensely staring into space as he listens to the screams of the victims, waiting for them to finish, as if he has heard this more than a few times before.  Following the shower, the “work unit” must drag out the corpses and scrub the floors.  However, one boy survives—a barely breathing ten-year old, gasping and moaning as he lies on a table.  A Nazi “doctor” ends his suffering by holding the boy’s nose and mouth closed as Saul continues with his ghastly tasks nearby.  It is all very grim.

Turns out, it seems, that the boy is Saul’s illegitimate son, and he spends the rest of the movie doing what he can to get the boy a proper religious burial.  This goal, however, is somewhat at odds with the rest of his Sonderkommando—they want to revolt, or at least smuggle photos of the camp to the outside world in order to reveal the Nazi atrocities.  Saul is willing to cooperate with that, so long as he can get the boy buried.  It seems to be the smallest redemption for this man forced at gunpoint to scrub the blood of his fellow Jews off the shower floors.

The film spends all its time with Saul, with a camera following right behind him, not unlike the scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, as Henry Hill and Karen walk through the back of the restaurant to their table.  The big red X on the back of Saul’s shirt is his temporary stay of execution, letting everyone know he is not to be put in the gas shower or shot into the pits just yet.  The camera also holds on Saul’s intense stare-downs with his co-prisoners for 10 or 15 seconds at a time.  It is as though there is something not fully disclosed to the viewer, some past understanding or anger.  We may not know exactly what he's thinking all the time, but we know these are men and women going through the same hell together.

Son of Saul possibly should be regarded as an important film in the telling of the Holocaust, another layer providing a better understanding of what went on in those death camps.  But I can’t say I enjoyed it—noteworthy films like Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and even the 1970’s TV series Holocaust gave us glints of hope, and characters we could root for.  Son of Saul is gray and violent and dismal, presenting perhaps the most repugnant of situations in a death camp—being forced to assist with the murders of one’s own people. 
Stanley Kubrick once remarked about Schindler’s List: "Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't."  If that is the measure, then Son of Saul is truly a movie about the Holocaust.

The Title:  Saul fia.  Before I knew what the movie was about, I kept mistakenly thinking of it as, alternatively, Better Call Saul or Son of Sam.   But never Better Call Son of Sam.  Though I'd go see that.

Culture:  Certainly an important depiction of Auschwitz, though I can’t say I recognized much that could be considered uniquely Hungarian.

Agenda danger:  Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably wouldn’t like the message here, but most people won’t have a problem with the filmmakers putting the National Socialists in a bad light.

Best Picture that year:  Spotlight

Rating:  I wouldn’t recommend this one for a first date, unless you are hoping there won’t be a second one.  That said, this a significant work of historical record.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Introduction to My BFF Project

My BFF Project

“There is a prejudice, perhaps understandable, against going to see a movie made in a foreign language.”  --William F. Buckley

For me, it's always seemed a chore to go see a foreign film.  The only place that would show these movies was on the other side of town at the art house theater.  Plus, if I wanted to read, I’d get a book.  Who wants to plop their money down and then have to work the entire time you're in the theater?  And to be honest, I sort of put foreign films into the same category as NPR, opera, and wine-sipping—things that, in my mind, a lot of people do to make themselves feel smarter than everyone else.

Two things changed my mind on this.  First, I read an autobiography of someone who described an event in his life as a Rashomon moment.  I had no idea what he meant, so I looked it up and found he was referring to an iconic Japanese film made by a guy I had only heard of, Akira Kurosawa.  I cracked my library card out and the first chance I got clunked the tape into the VCR and sat through the 90 minute movie.  The film is about a crime being reported by four different observers, each with a completely different viewpoint that reflected the individuals' biases.  I thought, gee, I've seen this bit in at least three or four bad sitcom episodes, but this was actually pretty great!  I started to check out more Kurosawa—Ikiru, Seven Samaurai, Throne of Blood, Ran—I was hooked.  Maybe it was worth doing a little reading on the bottom of the screen after all.

Second, a few years ago I caught this mini-series documentary on Turner Classic Movies called The Story of Film, written and narrated by Mark Cousins.  Cousins seemed like a pretentious jerk, but man, he had done his homework.  He described all eras of film, but more importantly, he discussed and showed great cinema made far from Hollywood—pre-Hitler Germany, the multitude of genres from India, the great Japanese directors, the Hong Kong style, even great movies made in Iran.  I was intrigued.

I generally don’t watch the Academy Awards—the self-congratulations and political preachiness are too much for me to bear—but while channel-flipping I saw the presentation of the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Ida, which was the first Polish movie to win.  I thought the director accepting the award, Paweł Pawlikowski, seemed pretty humble and grateful, a trait I don’t see much in the American winners, so I made a point of seeing his movie—and liked it.  Next I tried the 2013 winner, The Great Beauty, and then decided to find out how far backward I could go using my library card and the internet.  There are many, many great foreign films that never came close to smelling the Oscar, but I thought trying the award winners would be a good sampling.  

My BFF Project is the result of my little ongoing experiment.  My plan is to post a review a week going backward chronologically, starting with the Best Foreign Film from 2015's Academy Awards, Son of Saul.  Finding the movies was, of course, easy at first; everything is on DVD and available.  But as I have gone further back in time, it has been a little more difficult.  We'll see how it turns out.

The official title of the award is “Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film,” and films that qualify must not be made by an American filmmaker or be in English.  “Best Foreign Film” is a decent, if not wholly accurate shorthand name, which I neatly abbreviate as BFF.  Sure, these are foreign films I am reviewing, and you may at first think of me as a wine-sipping, NPR-listening, opera-loving snob.  But I assure you, I am more of a beer-gulping, sports-radio-listening, classic rock slob (even if I sometimes start my sentences with phrases like “I can assure you.”)  So who knows, if you read my weekly (?) reviews, maybe we can end up BFF's (Best Friends Forever)?  No, I don’t want that either.

In my reviews, besides a short critique of the films, I am including a few observations for each movie for you to ponder:

·       The Title.  If the title given is in English, I’ll give you the title in the language of the film, and possibly a note or two about the meaning.

·       Culture Watch.  One of the best aspects of a foreign film is seeing what it is like in the place being portrayed.  Does the film do that?  Could it be set anywhere, or did it have to take place there?  Did I learn anything about the culture?

·       Agenda Danger.  Hollywood isn’t known as a bastion of conservatism.  I don’t intend for this site to be about politics (HURRAY!), but in full disclosure, my feet are firmly planted on the soil on the right side of the ideological fence.  The question I am looking at is whether the film, voted on by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is trying to ram some political view down our throats, like Hollywood tends to do.  My conservative bias is bound to show itself from time to time, but I'll try to check it as much as I can.

·       Best Picture That Year.  Letting you know who won the big award that year to provide a little historical context.

·       My rating.  I won’t use stars or thumbs, at least not without irony, but I will let you know briefly how I grade it.  Read the review if you really are interested.

Any comments will be appreciated.  I have a thick skin, so if you are a film expert and you tell me I have no idea what I am talking about, I just won’t listen.  If you have never seen and never intend to see the films, feel free to use what you learn from my reviews to do all you can do to make yourself appear smarter and more sophisticated than your co-workers, friends, and spouses.   

I'll try to post these on Tuesdays, so the first one will be on June 28.