Son of Saul (Saul fia)


Oscar-winning intensity.

Oscar-winning intensity.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas, Sándor Zsórér, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Orbán, Kamil Dobrowolski, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Attila Fritz, Mihály Kormos, Márton Ȧgh, Amitai Kedar, István Pion, Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes

When we think of the Holocaust, it is truly hard to wrap our minds around it. The absolute ghastly nature of it; essentially Nazi Germany created death factories in which living people were brutally and efficiently processed into corpses, then those corpses disposed of. The horror of it fails to penetrate our skulls because we simply can’t conceive of it, even when we see pictures and newsreel footage. Our minds won’t let us.

But it did happen and perhaps one of the more astonishing things is that the Nazis had help in the orderly disposal of the Jews – from the Jews themselves. The sonderkommandos were tasked with cleaning the physical mess left behind by the dying, scrubbing the gas chambers to remove the bloodstains made from bloodied fists beating against the iron doors in vain trying to escape, as well as the excrete of a human body in extremis. They are the ones that process the clothes and take them for sorting, act as cowboys herding the masses of those getting off the train at Auschwitz into the waiting chambers. They are the ones who drag the corpses – now called pieces by the German guards – to the ovens, or out to mass graves. They dispose of the ashes when the ovens get full. And their service buys them only a few months before they are herded into chambers of their own.

Saul Auslander (Röhrig) is just such a man. He walks with a purpose, his visage grim and unsmiling, revealing nothing of what is occurring inside while he does his grim and grisly work. He cares for no-one and nothing; he aids the resistance somewhat, reluctantly agreeing to fight although he says very little about it. His life is a perpetual tunnel vision of task and survival, even if it is only for a few short weeks. Perhaps the war will end before the Nazis get a chance to kill him.

Then he sees a young boy who survives the chamber – barely. German doctors are called in to see the boy, still breathing, lying on a slab. Then they suffocate him. Something inside Saul snaps. He determines to see that this boy, who fought so valiantly to survive, gets a proper Jewish burial with the rites of kadish read by a rabbi. He even claims him as his son, which he may or may not be.

However, there aren’t many rabbis left and those that are aren’t likely to advertise their rabbinical status. Finding one in the hordes of the doomed coming in is highly unlikely. Hiding the body of the boy amid the chaos and paranoia of Nazis and prisoners alike, improbable. Getting both the body and the rabbi outside of the camp for the burial is nigh-on impossible.

The opening shot, shown from Saul’s point of view as chaos comes in and out of focus as he herds new arrivals towards the waiting gas chambers, shows that this is going to be a different and excellent film. Everything outside of what is immediate to Saul is blurred, as if seen through tunnel vision. The style reminds one strongly of the Dardennes brothers who employ a similar technique.

The entire film in fact is shot this way, which is a double edged sword. It allows us to see Saul’s perspective which is very much on immediate survival, and excludes anything beyond that narrow focus. Saul’s world is by necessity a small one, limited to the task at hand of the moment and of avoiding the indiscriminate wrath of Nazi soldiers who aren’t above executing him for a minor infraction.

However, as someone who is prone to vertigo, the whirling camera rapidly goes from being an innovation to an annoyance to being downright disruptive. I found myself unable to look at the screen because I was getting way too dizzy. That kind of defeats the purpose of a movie; how are we to make sense of the images when we can’t see them?

That’s not a minor quibble, but it really is the only one. Everything else about the movie is simply awe-inspiring, from the strong, internalized performance by Röhrig that reveals little about what’s inside of Saul as it in fact tells us everything we need to do. Who is this boy to Saul? Is it his son, as he claims? A representation of the son he lost? Or is he a symbol standing for all the Jews who the Holocaust has taken?

These questions are at the center of the film and they are not easily answered. Saul himself is an enigmatic character who defies us to get to know him even as he gives us nothing to hold onto. For Nemes, he orchestrates this narrative masterfully, telling us a grim and dark story from a brand new perspective, one which we as a cinematic audience have never experienced before. For that alone, the movie richly deserves the Oscar it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.

This is, simply put, a must-see film. Some audience members, particularly Jewish ones who have family members who were victims of the Holocaust, are going to find this hard to watch. I did, although mainly because my vertigo made me look away more than the stark and often gruesome images. Still, it is worth us to remind us that the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man is nearly boundless, a lesson we still haven’t learned more than 70 years later.

REASONS TO GO: Searing and emotionally powerful material. Röhrig delivers an amazing performance. Innovative camera style.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky cam caused legitimate dizziness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and cruelty as well as a lot of graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is supposed to be from Saul’s perspective only; we never see anything that isn’t within his field of view or hear anything that isn’t within his range of hearing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gods of Egypt

The Place Beyond the Pines


Ryan Gosling wonders why he's always cast as a great driver.

Ryan Gosling wonders why he’s always cast as a great driver.

(2012) Drama (Focus) Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin, Bruce Greenwood, Olga Merediz, Robert Clohessy, Kayla Smalls, Jennifer Sober, Luca Pierucci, Gabe Fazio, Brian Smyj, Greta Seacat, Ephraim Benton, Vanessa Thorpe, Sabrina Lott. Directed by Derek Cianfrance   

As the saying goes, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. This is, I suppose, a way of tying together the behaviors of a son that ape those of his father, often to the detriment of the son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three parts. The first concerns Luke Glanton (Gosling), a skilled motorcycle stunt driver who as part of a travelling carnival moves from town to town. The buff, bleach blonde Glanton doesn’t seem to have a problem finding women to sleep in much as a sailor has a girl in every port. In Schenectady, that girl is Romina (Mendes), a waitress who doesn’t appear to have much more to look forward to than sore feet and occasional liaisons with men she probably shouldn’t have them with. A baby results from this union and Luke impulsively decides to quit the wandering life to settle down and help raise the baby.

However, Romina has moved on somewhat since her fling with Luke and has found a steady boyfriend in Kofi (Ali),  who is willing to help raise baby Jason as his own. Romina though has a soft spot for her bad boy who wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately Luke has fallen in with Robin (Mendelsohn), a small-time criminal who runs an auto body shop. It is he who puts the idea in Luke’s head that the easiest way to support his kid properly is to rob banks. Luke, barely able to make ends meet on his own, slowly finds it to be a good idea. Thing like this, however, rarely remain good for long.

The second part of the story belongs to Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop whose father (Yulin) – a judge and a local power broker – doesn’t approve of his son’s career choice and is perfectly willing to express his opinions. Avery and his wife Jennifer (Byrne) are busy raising a one-year-old son on their own when Avery is shot on the job. He is at home rehabilitating but is anxious to get back to work. Jennifer is torn – she wants space at home to raise her kid, but is terrified Avery’s next encounter with violence won’t end so fortunately.

Avery gets wind of some corrupt cops, led by Detective Deluca (Liotta), Avery’s partner and friend Scott (Fazio) and Doc (Pierucci). At first Avery kind of lets things go but when he realizes that with every act of compromise he’s getting in deeper with these guys, he decides to blow the whistle. This won’t be easy particularly since he doesn’t know how high the corruption goes. Is Chief Wierzbowsky (Clohessy) clean? Can he trust District Attorney Killcullen (Greenwood)?

The final part of the story takes place 15 years afterwards as Avery’s troubled son AJ (Cohen) moves from a more urban school to Schenectady where his father grew up. Avery, whose ambitions as a cop have blossomed into a run for State Attorney General , doesn’t really have time for his rap-spewing drug-addled boy. At the new school he meets Jason (DeHaan), a kind of quiet smart kid who hits it off with AJ based on both boys love of getting high.

AJ is definitely trouble but Jason isn’t exactly turning down time with the boisterous and braggadocios boy. However, he will discover that AJ’s dad and his own have a connection, one which binds the two boys together in a dark and serious way. As Jason investigates that connection, the lives of the two boys and everyone around them will undergo a profound change.

Cianfrance, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine which in many ways has some of the same attributes as this – great intensity, top notch acting, a storyline which doesn’t shrink from real life issues and ultimately not always easy to watch. Cianfrance is highly skilled at his craft and is most certainly a talent to keep an eye out for; this is a movie that shows a great deal of confidence from the opening extended tracking shot that follows Luke through the carnival to the final shot of Jason riding away from Schenectady, seemingly on the same road as his father with the same inevitable consequences. Yes, it is a shot of a young man embracing his freedom but there are troubled undertones – to my mind it’s brilliant.

Gosling and Cooper shine here. Both Oscar-nominated actors, I truly believe that over the next 20 years these are both going to be regular honorees at awards shows (including the Oscars) and Cooper in particular is likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Gosling seems less interested in that sort of thing, preferring to take roles that challenge him but who knows; maybe somewhere down the line he gets a plum franchise to make his own.

The two actors share but one scene and that for only moments, which further cements Cianfrance as a director unafraid to take chances. In the third act, Cooper is relegated to essentially a supporting role while Cohen and DeHaan take center stage. DeHaan has enormous potential with some big roles in his immediate future (he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer)  and here he shows that he has the kind of searing presence that can mesmerize audiences.

What doesn’t work here are a couple of things. First, the damn shaky cam. I get that directors like to create a kind of kinetic cinematography that brings the audience into the film, creating additional dramatic tension but let me send a note to every director out there – it doesn’t work. What it really does is quite the opposite – I’ve watched people get motion sickness at films with the kind of hand held shenanigans you find here and when an audience is looking  away from the screen because the images are making their stomachs do flip flops, there’s a director who has a problem.

The character of AJ was a bit too trying for me as well. I have no doubt that there are a lot of kids out there who fit this bill – spoiled, hedonistic, lost souls whose only goal is to escape the lives that they have, which when they come from middle class or even upper class families can strain one’s sympathies. However the character was all wrong for this situation; when Jason has his confrontation with AJ the audience begins to root for some serious damage to be done to AJ and that doesn’t serve the film well. The story deserves better than that; if AJ had at least a few redeeming characteristics it would add a great deal more power to the story. As it is, the audience’s rooting interest becomes all too easy. While the story really is about the changes that come to Jason, it adds a little more something to the film if AJ also transforms and you don’t get the sense that he does, despite the twinkle in his eye near the end of the film.

This is a movie I respected more than liked. The story felt very real, and the economic pressures on both Luke and Avery that drive some of their moral decisions are those felt by millions of families each and every day. While I would be a little surprised if either Gosling, Cooper or DeHaan received awards season recognition – not that they don’t deserve it but more because of when the movie came out and how little publicity it’s received – I have to say that this is a movie that will push you into looking around you more than entertaining you. The late Gene Siskel made it plain that slice of life movies were among his favorites and mine too as well. However, some slices are more bitter than others.

REASONS TO GO: Really tremendous acting, particularly from Gosling and Cooper. An interesting story.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much shaky cam. You just want to punch AJ in the face.

FAMILY VALUES:  Swearing throughout, a bit of violence, some teen drug use and drinking and a couple of sexual references..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in and around Schenectady, NY whose name translates from the Mohawk for “beyond the pine plains.” Also, the banks seen being robbed here are all real working banks in the Schenectady area.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; all in all the reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Conviction

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Broken