Shocking ‘Son of Saul’ is a Holocaust movie masterpiece

Cannes’ best film brings us back inside the extermination camps with a shock to the system, though not in the way we’ve come to expect from this genre

A scene from the film 'Son of Saul' (Cannes Film Festival)
A scene from the film 'Son of Saul' (Cannes Film Festival)

CANNES — The Cannes Film Festival is winding down, and this year the event was seismically Semitic. Noticeable bigotry may be on the rise in this wonderful country of raw milk cheeses and outlandish baked goods, but at France’s prestigious summer soiree it was Jews JEWS JEWS behind so many of the most discussed films. A rundown:

“Son of Saul” is the best film of the festival, and also the most difficult to watch. Not the stuff of a fun night out at the movies, this Hungarian production directed by newcomer Lásló Nemes is perhaps one of the most striking works of art about the Holocaust yet made. I know that’s a big statement, but it’s not just the Mediterranean sun messing with my head.

Shot in a “you are there” style, employing long takes, innovative use of framing, shallow focus, expressive sound design and every other cinematic trick in the book, “Son of Saul” is as much a movie as a response to the charge to “never forget.” It concerns a member of the Sonderkommando who may or may not have seen his son in one of the gas chambers.

By bringing us back inside the extermination camps in a new (and dare I say artful?) way, Nemes shakes up the conventions of Holocaust films that have undeniably grown predictable. This movie shocks the system.

What’s remarkable is that it is a psychological provocation, not shock value. This is not a gory picture. By using highly choreographed lengthy takes (think “Gravity” or “Children of Men”) the horrors exist on the corners of the frame, and the tension from not cutting becomes almost unbearable. There’s just enough of a throughline – following our lead actor (Géza Röhrig) on a Sisyphean task – to let us absorb the hellscape of mankind’s darkest hour. Nemes, who worked as legendary filmmaker Béla Tarr’s assistant, has come out of the gate with a masterpiece.

Portman looking glum, but fabulous, in the rain

“A Tale of Love and Darkness,” from another first time feature director, is nowhere in the same league, but not quite as bad as some have suggested. Adapting Amos Oz’s marvelous memoir, Natalie Portman (who also cast herself as Fania, the doomed mother) the Israeli-American actress/Dior pitchwoman has made a noble effort.

Natalie Portman in her directorial debut, 'A Tale of Love and Darkness.' (Cannes Film Festival)
Natalie Portman in her directorial debut, ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’ (Cannes Film Festival)

The opening is faithful to the book, recounting anecdotes of growing up poor in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. Things then slide to focus on Fania’s crippling depression, a very difficult thing to film. A lot of this movie is watching Natalie Portman being glum in the rain. (She still looks fabulous, though.)

Oz’s prose is heard via voice over, and his insights about memory and family add considerable weight. The location photography in the Old City adds a nice touch, too. If you are remembering back through the corridors of your mind, there’s nothing like those winding streets.

Director and actress Natalie Portman poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'A Tale of Love and Darkness,' at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, France, May 17, 2015. (AP/Joel Ryan/Invision)
Director and actress Natalie Portman poses for photographers at the photo call for the film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, France, May 17, 2015. (AP/Joel Ryan/Invision)

A simple ‘Afterthought’

With all the publicity of Portman’s entry, who’d have thought that the far better Israeli film this year would be from an unknown named Elad Keidan taking us on a walk through Haifa?

A scene from the Israeli film 'Afterthought' (Cannes Film Festival)
A scene from the Israeli film ‘Afterthought’ (Cannes Film Festival)

“Afterthought” is a very simple, shaggy story. Two men are on a walk. One is going up the staircases of Mount Carmel, the other is going down. They get into conversations along the way, meet in the middle, then, essentially, “switch” what they are encountering. The younger man is on his way to a ship, hoping to leave the country, while the older man is looking for his wife’s lost earring.

Really, the movie is just an excuse to take a peek at Israeli culture and bask in endless street wisdom. The stroll moves through neighborhoods of humor and melancholy and, while some less adventuresome viewers may ask, “What the hell is this movie about?” others who are more attentive will reply, “Everything!”

Allen’s morality play

Speaking of philosophy, let’s get to Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man.”

Still beloved in France (he’s long claimed his movies “gain something in translation”) this new one is basically a drama, or morality play, with some droll moments.

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Woody Allen's 'Irrational Man' (Cannes Film Festival)
Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in Woody Allen’s ‘Irrational Man’ (Cannes Film Festival)

Set on a college campus, it focuses on a rock star professor (Joaquin Phoenix, a Jew born to New Age hippie parents) who comes to town carrying all sorts of mishegas. He can’t write, he’s drunk all the time, he’s impotent – so naturally all the students are swooning over him. He and Emma Stone form a (nonsexual [at first]) relationship. They have armchair conversations about moral culpability and crime and punishment and, due to strange circumstances, Phoenix finds himself no longer talking, but doing. Is murder ever justified, he asks?

More interestingly, for those obsessed with the lives behind the camera, Woody asks, how you would react if you found out someone you loved committed a violent crime?

Back to Amy

Speaking of shandas, how ’bout that Mitch Winehouse? If you don’t know the name, let’s think about the song “Rehab.” After the chorus there’s this line: “I ain’t got the time/and my Daddy says I’m fine.”

That’s Amy Winehouse singing, of course — the brilliantly gifted North London Jewess who, if you buy what the documentary “Amy” is selling, was basically pushed into a career she didn’t want by, among other people, her somewhat sleazy father. She started out as a jazz singer, took to drinking, then instead of getting clean, made the album “Back to Black” and became an international superstar. She did not have the fortitude for that kind of life and died five years later.

“Back to Black” is one of the finest pop/R&B records ever made, so this documentary, made exclusively from home video and performance recordings, does point the finger back at us, a bit, for profiting from her pain. It’s a very well made, and sad, piece of work.

A scene from the film 'Dégradé,' by twins Tarzan and Arab Nasser from Gaza (Cannes Film Festival)
A scene from the film ‘Dégradé,’ by twins Tarzan and Arab Nasser from Gaza (Cannes Film Festival)

Of interest to Jews will be the film “Dégradé” by twins Tarzan and Arab Nasser from Gaza. (Those are noms de plume, but the two young men are indeed twins.) Essentially a filmed play, the action takes place in a beauty salon as fighting in the streets keep the twelve women stuck inside.

Leading the pack is Hiam Abbas, as an unflappable new divorcée. Also in the mix are a Russian immigrant who owns the shop, a pill-popping libertine and a religious woman in full cover. As the tension builds, the women discuss their woes and, while none of them is exactly fond of the Jewish state, most of their ire is directed toward, in their words, the thugs in Hamas.

Don’t worry — there’s still room to gripe about Fatah, local gangsters, the Power Company (who can’t seem to get their blackout dates straight) and universal problems like lazy husbands. Israeli drones scramble the cable TV, but it’s Hamas that starts firing guns to smoke out a local bandit (who, naturally, is in love with one of our hairstylists).

“Dégradé” is not a masterpiece. It’s a first film, it’s low budget and it gets rather slow at time. But, considering how few films are coming out of Gaza right now (other than this one, the sum total is zero; the last movie theater closed there in 1987), it’s worthwhile to check this one out. Politics is not its primary focus, people are.

Most Popular
read more: