son of saul (2015)
Son of Saul arrives as part of an encouraging trend that cinema may soon go through another great upheaval in its cultural place of the ever-reactionary art form. The funny thing about filmmaking is that, since its creation, it has been wholly unable to define itself; cinema has little idea of what it is and is largely pre-occupied by what it is not. The defining role that the cinema has played in the culture has always been inexorably tied to its ideal that one can look no further than the movie house to see what they can see "nowhere else", and it has continued to be the one through-line in the story of films and what they strive for. For filmmakers, the cinema is an art form that trumps all others, it is at once an amalgamation of all art disciplines rolled in to one and yet it is none of them at all. Such an amorphous form cannot truly, then, be known as it can only be explained by the qualities that it does not hold. Film is not theater, radio, television, literature, painting, music, nor sculpture though it has characteristics of all of these things. Its most closely associated cousins, however, have always been theater and television. Since the birth of TV, cinema has always treated it as the step-child of sorts, constantly redefining what it did based on TV's mimicry. A square 4:3 screen? Not anymore! "Real" visuals are crafted in Cinemascope! 20 - 60 minute bite-sized episodes? We have 4 hour epics! Long story short here, the cinema is at it again and I couldn't be more thrilled. Though the mainstream is lagging behind trying to figure out what it is about television that has the binge-watching Netflix-and-chill crowd so enamored, creating cinema universes, grabbing TV writers by the dozens and holding "writer's rooms" for films, the art house has turned its back on it all and is once again free to craft a cinema that not only relegates character and story to the sidelines, but creates experiences that could never be sustained by the necessary evils of the television format.
Back to Son of Saul, which takes a step in this direction by mere means of stream of consciousness. Where are we? The holocaust. Tough to truly capture and almost indescribably potent in its instant cultural awakening of pent-up emotion toward the subject. It's difficult to use the subject to say much, so much has already been said, like most of WWII subject matter that begat genres of its own due to sheer numbers. In this way the film is able to use our familiarity to its advantage, never needing exposition and never showing us much of anything besides our lead actor and his reaction to the madness all around him. The film shows us what we've never seen before by not showing us much of anything, rather alluding to the existence of atrocity just outside of frame. It's a clever way to bridge the gap between our fear and our imagination, the two meet for many instances of self-induced disgust rather than prying our eyes open and daring us to react. What do we find in this all too subjective film? We find a main character, isolated and yet on a quest to do right by his own son, or possibly not, we can never be sure of him as his deranged and reckless actions never seem to translate to composure. We watch him with the same sense that we view anyone at the end of their rope, and that's half the battle in a film like this, we're spun a world we could never understand based on the fact that these characters are living second to second, without ever knowing why or what has befallen them. When asked if he cares if his comrades die, Saul replies "we're already dead". What does a dead man walking care about? Last rites of course and finding peace for his son beyond the grave provides us with enough of a motive with which to spin the rest of the tale on that focal point. The film at once becomes one that gets in our face as well as retreats from us, beckoning that we follow. With its use of sound and shallow depth of field to obscure and illuminate all that we can never imagine happening all around us, the whirring of the different characters that we will never truly know and who may meet their end at any second, Son of Saul gives a unique view into the death camps and what they meant. It's, thankfully, not a film that need be enjoyed on its subject's merits. The feat of this production lies in its quiet and unassuming, yet entirely engrossing, affirmation that at our most base we exist on a plane of exertions of will. The men have the will of the murdering nazi order forced upon them, and in the same way, they too seek to control .. something .. anything. As the fires rage and the loss of life grows with each moment, we are able to sink in to the simultaneous striving for survival and the cold acknowledgement that death is unavoidable. The film shows much that we never concretely see, a concept desperately needed in the cinema.
By placing itself in a realm of subjectivity that can only be achieved through the unbroken experience, Son of Saul breaks through the noise to become something not yet achieved in the cinematic experience. It beckons the viewer closer while maintaining a distance from its own world deep within the screen. Like Bresson with Pickpocket, we're deeply entrenched into the personal viewpoint while still bearing witness to a larger world and context, we drift from one place to another, one mass death to another, all the while tethered to one whose survival depends entirely on ignoring the deeply unsettling circumstances all around and finding an inner peace. The peace that comes with detachment perhaps. As a film, we're still seeing the larger implications that this sort of immersion brings to the cinematic experience, but I can say with few reservations that it is a perfect blend of classic technique with modern ideology, and it's highly recommended.