Friday, May 6, 2016
"Son of Saul is a fiction in many respects, but the fiction is the truth." – Claude Lanzmann
Saul Auslander has been reduced to a drone, a Sonderkammando who has become the hand of the Nazi killing machine, bled of his empathy, compassion… and hope. But does he still retain his humanity?
Director Laszlo Nemes has crafted a masterpiece by pulling focus so tightly that we experience almost everything solely from one limited perspective which eschews all Holocaust tropes. Nemes and his DP Matyas Erdely set the frame limits at Academy ratio 1:37:1 and forbid any establishing shots. There are very few medium long shots and when the camera pans left or right it quickly focuses once again upon Saul’s visage. The depth of field is so limited that we never quite focus upon obviously horrific events. Nemes refuses to exploit the Holocaust: there are no lingering close-ups of piles of bodies, overt crying and wailing victims or murdered children in red jackets. All of these things (sans red jacket) exist in this film but are rendered as routine and peripheral.
Nemes like his protégé Bela Tarr utilizes extreme long takes and a roving camera often following his protagonist from behind while walking or running. Erdely masterly frames everything in close-up to medium close-up even while Saul is in motion. And the entire film is in motion as Saul constantly moves and works, unable to stop for fear of being singled out for execution. As powerful as the imagery is (even the images we tangentially perceive) it’s the sound design that is the building block of the realism. Dozens of disparate languages and dialects haunt the film often without a visual source. Or the chugging of arriving trains or the ventilation system of the crematorium as it pumps out the fatal pesticide. Neither the crack of gunfire nor the rumbles of explosions are exaggerated and even the awful scene of flamethrowers burning victims alive has a subdued brittle realism. This is an anti-Hollywood film. This is an anti-SCHINDLER’S LIST film.
The film opens out-of-focus until a character (who we learn is our protagonist) walks towards the camera and stops in close-up. Without an establishing shot it’s chaotic and confusing and difficult to tell what is happening. This becomes the structure for the entire movie. But we soon understand that Saul is shepherding a new trainload of Jews to the crematorium. As he helps these confused victims undress and neatly hang up their clothes and organize their belongings, we begin to directly experience the cruelly efficient Nazi killing apparatus: most victims believe this to be a shower and are encouraged that they will come back out to retrieve their belongings. When the crematorium door is closed and the generators thump to life we don’t hear as much as feel the bulk of the dying victims crushing one another, pushing towards the door, climbing upon each other in a gruesome frenzy to survive. We only see Saul’s blank expression as he stands by the door waiting to pull out the corpses and load them onto the elevators towards the ovens. And here is the vilest evil of the Holocaust: in making the victims complicit in their own destruction.
Nemes refuse to condemn or judge Saul or any other Sonderkammando; he is only depicting the acts. He is humanizing the Jews in these “Special Units” without making any excuse for their behavior or allowing melodrama to intrude for an emotional reconciliation. Saul remains quite impassive and difficult to read. Nemes underscores this at the very beginning of the film (even before the opening shot) when the text states that the word Sonderkammando is a German word. This divorces their title from Jewish authority: that is, they are labelled by the Nazis and have become what they have been forced to do.
The plot of the film is beside the point. Saul discovers a boy who briefly survived the Zyklon B before being murdered by Joseph Mengele (who is never explicitly named). He believes that this dead boy is his son. He is driven by the need to bury this boy with a Jewish ceremony and keep it from the ovens. We wonder if it is indeed his son as other prisoners dispute this telling Saul he never had children. In the face of this seemingly unending tragedy we also become curious as to why this one act is so important to him. Saul’s search for a Rabbi drives the narrative but these motivations are not the focus of the film: Nemes wants us to see how this film is about the Holocaust not what happens (because we know what happens as we know what Saul’s fate must ultimately be). Nemes creates tension about a potential revolt and the need of a smuggled package but our expectations are once again subverted.
Saul is among a group of prisoners who escape the camp but are tracked down to a decaying barn in the middle of a forest. The group-speak promises to join the Polish Resistance and continue the fight against the Nazi tyranny but Saul is focused upon one thing: the ghostly child tentatively framed in the doorway. And in a striking departure the narrative exits Saul’s perspective and we follow the child running through the woods until he’s grabbed by German soldiers. Pushed aside, the child runs through the thick woods as gunshots echo in the distance. Saul has met his death with a sublime smile, his humanity somehow intact.
Final Grade: (A+)
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Claude Lanzmann records the testimony of survivors who walked through the valley of death at Chelmo, Treblinka, the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the Warsaw Ghetto: a violent chronicle captured in spoken words thus breathing life into history.
Lanzmann’s emotionally explosive exposition eschews historical film clips such as Resnais utilized in NIGHT AND FOG: piles of rotting corpses, mounds of hair, or the blackened ovens thick with human ash. These images are graven into the collective consciousness (at least, anyone with a conscience) and Lanzmann instead allows his subjects to add context, to tell their tale in their own words, to resurrect a past that must never be forgotten: for it is the curse of humanity that we forget. Lanzmann allows the stories to unfold slowly but he presses for testimony even when his subjects shy away from details, for these are the truths that must be revealed to future generations.
The camera often strays from the person speaking to depict the scene of the genocide as it appears at the time of filming, 30+ years after the crime. A peaceful clearing surrounded by sullen trees was once the sight of 400,00 deaths; a muddy road was once the cold steel rail towards a final destination of choking gas; or a small village of simple hard-working townsfolk who witnessed the deportation and execution of thousands of Jews. This brings the black and white past into the future and colors it red with the blood of innocents. One particular scene joins past and present as a Nazi document is being read as a voice-over; an order concerning the need to improve vehicle efficiency to include floor drains for easy cleanup after its “cargo” has been destroyed. The camera focuses upon a modern box truck thrumming through traffic and we see that it is the same German vehicle manufacturer: Sauer.
Lanzmann also secretly interviews a few Nazi perpetrators, old men who hide behind ignorance and who have grown to believe their own lies in order to allay guilt and remain human. One soldier was a guard at Treblinka and goes into detail about the working of the gas chambers and crematorium…but fails to take any responsibility though he was a factor in the Final Solution. Another was in charge of the railroad scheduling that took millions to their deaths by boxcar but claims no knowledge of the specific cargo, only that he was a paper-pusher. Though the facts are intriguing, it is what these men don’t say that weighs heavily upon the narrative and reveals the cancer that destroys their souls.
From the barber who cut the hair of women about to be executed to the Pole who sneaks into the Warsaw Ghetto and witnessed the inhuman atrocities, or the local elders who heard the screams while tilling their fields to the vehement Christians who still vomit their contempt of the “murderers of Christ”, Lanzmann has crafted a document of truth as remembered by those who survived: by telling he transcends the propaganda of the image.
Final Grade: (A+)
Saturday, March 12, 2016
The wise little donkey Balthazar struggles through his innocuous life and becomes a saint among sinners, while Marie’s downfall is a stark contrast, her vice is her lifelessness. Director/writer Robert Bresson’s diminutive parable reaches epic proportions as his lens captures the ignoble origins of rural life and finally attains the majesty of salvation.
The story begins with Marie adopting a foal she names Balthazar: she and her friends even baptize the baby donkey in a playful ritual. Marie and Balthazar form a bond of love, though both will be held in physical and emotional bondage for the remainder of their lives. The donkey accepts his hard existence but finds ways to subvert his captors, whether it’s by tipping a cart or breaking the bridle, braying and kicking, while Marie surrenders to her nowhere fate, always depending upon others and soon becomes victim to selfishness. Marie spurns the one boy who professes his passion and runs away with Gerard, the leather jacketed “bad boy” who uses her up…and casts her out like trash.
Marie becomes addicted to the adrenaline of ecstasy, and wanders through a stormy night willing to sell her body for a warm bed. Her father is an egotistical man locked in his own world of pride and self-denial, unable to accept reality or offer forgiveness: Marie has learned well.
Bresson captures the raw power of life force, the harmonic resonance that synchronizes living beings, whether they are Homo Sapiens or Equus Africanus Asinus. In one touching scene, the donkey escapes from a cruel taskmaster and finds its way to the manger where it once knew happiness, and Marie hears its cry and comes to his aid. We begin to see Balthazar as an intelligent and compassionate animal as he makes his way through the difficult terrain of his life, and he becomes blameless in his hardships…unlike Marie. Both fall by the sword and become portions for foxes, though Marie is offered a choice: her violent fate remains ambiguous while Balthazar has no chance at all. Finally, a tiny suffering life is shepherded from the mountaintops to the Elysium fields.
Final Grade: (A+)
Monday, February 22, 2016
The diabolical Reinhard Heydrich bleeds his Nazi propaganda into the occupied Prague streets, assassinated by the Czech Resistance who refused to surrender to an occupation of mass murderers. Fritz Lang rebels against his German heritage and directs a pure and concise piece of World War Two propaganda, decrying the fascist consumption of Europe by portraying the heroic defiance of the Czech’s gunpowder treason.
Unfortunately, the film is more interesting as a historic document viewed in the black and white of nostalgia and revisionist history: made during WWII, the narrative fails to explore the truth about Hitler’s cold-blooded retort…the murder of over 1,600 Czech citizens and the razing of two villages. The performance by Brian Donlevy is sterile and expressionless, his dialogue as exciting and emotional as a cue card. The staged direction detracts from the suspense as the narrative becomes too contrived, the plan to frame Czaka just too unbelievable because it relies on coincidences and implausible unforeseen reactions. The intelligent performance by the Gestapo Inspector adds a devious element that creates some frisson, but the Nazis and their sympathizers are effeminate caricatures, drunken slobs, or very stupid. Bertolt Brecht’s story delves into the subconscious and duality of the protagonist’s actions as he must weigh the needs of the many against the few, but the words are crammed into a thick narrative and becomes heroically preachy.
Fritz Lang’s direction is restrained except for a few expressionist scenes, as long dark shadows stalk the walls of the interrogator’s chambers, or the long silent walk down a narrow alley with death close behind. In retrospect, a strong political film that questions the morality of murder, examines the concept of Justice, but falls flat as suspenseless and poorly acted.
Final Grade: (C)
Saturday, February 6, 2016
The brash and maniacal pickpocket Skip McCoy, who soft hands hit like bricks, knocks out Candy’s sweet tooth. Director Sam Fuller’s communist exposé is as subtle as a punch in the jaw, dirty as one-room flophouse, and laced with profane dialogue as keen as a Tattoo shop’s bloody needle.
The mundane plot device is a roll of microfilm unknowingly lifted from Candy’s purse; just another mark for three time loser Skip McCoy who gets more than money: his life now becomes a desperate negotiation as flammable as nitrate. Fuller centers his narrative upon the seedy characters that inhabit this dank underworld of society, the predators who live in the rush of the moment with violent death as their obligatory destination. Candy is a prostitute who vainly attempts to separate herself from an abusive boyfriend, her last favor to finalize some shady business deal.
Fuller begins the film with a claustrophobic tenseness aboard a rushing subway, cutting to extreme close-up and crowded medium shot, his visual exposition clearly introducing the setup: two detectives stalking Candy. Then in wanders the wild card, a pickpocket who by happenstance lifts her wallet and gets the big score. Fuller expertly cuts to medium shot and again to close-up of Skip’s hands massaging the purse, wicked eyes searing the screen, as the clacking of steel assaults the soundtrack. As a neat aside, look for the soldier from the Big Red One, Fuller’s regiment during WWII, as an extra aboard the congested train. Skip makes his escape and the police bring in Moe, an elderly woman who sells inexpensive silk ties as a front, like nooses upon those deserving of their fate, but her information doesn’t come cheap. Thelma Ritter as Moe steels the film, imbuing it with a graceful humanity, a woman of character and charm who only wants to be buried in a real cemetery and not a Potter’s Field. Richard Widmark as Skip is a brutal and leering man, full of selfish desires. His nemesis is Captain Tiger of the NYPD who knows another minor conviction will put this scumbag away for life. And poor Candy is a woman who has lost her flavor, but never her morals.
Fuller wants to show that there is indeed honor among thieves, but patriotism to the collective government who punishes them is running on empty. Though criminals, the anti-heroes of the story remain honest to their own testimony, and once Skip understands that Candy sacrificed herself for him, and Moe sadly did the same, he is out for vengeance. Fuller depicts the tough talking police as a streetwise gang, professionals who are becoming the very thing they prosecute. But even these losers look down upon Communists who wish to betray their country, and the hierarchy from police to criminal to Red is fundamental. But more importantly, Skip and Candy get the last word and remain true to themselves…while Moe is buried with respect.
Final Grade: (B)
Thursday, February 4, 2016
Watanabe is sick to death of his pointless existence wrapped in a funereal shroud of redundant bureaucracy; in death he is finally reborn. Director Akira Kurosawa paints a compassionate portrait of a terminal man who carries the weight of his regretful past, not on his shoulders but in the malignant pit of his stomach.
Kurosawa opens the film with an X-ray and omniscient narration explaining that Watanabe is a doomed man: we see inside of the protagonist before we see outside. Cut to: Watanabe hunched over a small desk, stacks of paper dominating the composition which makes him seem tiny and insignificant. He slowly stamps papers without comprehending them (or caring to) while his subordinates go about their job in anxious silence. Kurosawa conveys Watanabe’s apathy in one sublime shot: he opens a drawer and takes out a yellowing document: "Ideas to make the Public Affairs Office more functional". But he wipes clotted ink off the stamp with the crumpled paper and tosses it away. Like he has tossed the past 25 years of his life away. A young girl begins giggling and the others look surprised and try to hush her. This outburst of emotion is forbidden, Watanabe asks her to read the joke which made her laugh. But the primeval substance of the joke seems to pass directly through her empty boss; he looks down and gulps more medicine.
Kurosawa explores the inner life of the protagonist and is concerned with his reaction in this extraordinary circumstance, much like Dostoevsky. He explains his past only in conjunction with his cancer, but his sickness is more than physical. Kurosawa utilizes flashbacks in order to show us Watanabe’s patriarchal failings, and this device is only used when he is contemplating his deceased wife. He uses the past as an excuse saying; “I did it all for my son”, but the young girl from his department admonishes him, “Every parent uses the children as an excuse.”
Watanabe soon discovers what he most feared: he has a short time to live. But Kurosawa isn’t concerned with this knowledge because this isn’t a story about his cancer: it is a story of a human being facing mortality at a specific time. No more lies or self-delusions. It is about living in the now. Watanabe goes on a drinking spree and enjoys the superficial physical pleasure but soon grows tired (and sick) of it. He then focuses upon the young girl and does everything to make her happy, but she grows frightened of the attention. This Platonic relationship is misunderstood by his son and the hidden fault line between them shifts, creating an emotional earthquake. But it’s the wisdom of the innocent girl who finds her peace making toys for children, for doing something that affects others, that propels Watanabe towards his salvation.
Early in the narrative, a group of women complained about a sewage pond that was giving their children rashes. Kurosawa’s meticulous and dynamic editing cuts from Public Affairs, to Engineering, to Parks and Recreations, etc…until the women are back where they began. It is an excruciating condemnation of government bureaucracy, the dehumanization of the people they’re supposed to help. Now Watanabe takes up their cause to clean up the morass and build a park: now he begins to live.
The films structure is elliptical; that is, immediately after his epiphany we are transported in time to his wake, learning he died in a park. His co-workers sit around and congratulate themselves on the park they built, but others know it was Watanabe who was responsible, who was the driving force. As each one delivers their insight, we are shown Watanabe and his unflinching desire to see his plan come to fruition. It seems cruel that he did all the work and politicians will take all the credit, until we understand that the credit is meaningless: all that matters is that the park was built. And Watanabe’s accomplishment has value even though only a few recognize his participation.
The polluted pond is now a playground. What once brought sickness now brings happiness. He didn’t change the whole world, but he rearranged the part that mattered. And that’s a fitting epitaph for anyone.
Final Grade: (A+)
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Tetsuya is a samurai hit man who values duty above all else, trying to walk the path of enlightenment through the dark night of his soul. Seijun Suzuki’s absurdist neon noir is a pantheon of trite clichés deconstructed and stripped bare, revealing a narrative element that burns like a noble gas.
Suzuki dismantles genre expectations in the very first reel, beginning the film not in black and white (like a “serious” noir-ish melodrama) but in a blown-out monochrome bled of all color. The anti-hero Tetsuya is introduced as a victim of a rival gang, as he seemingly allows them to pummel him into physical submission. We soon learn that loyalty kept him from fighting back, as his master Kurata attempts to go straight and place the life of crime behind them both. Of course, this becomes impossible so thus we have conflict and a plot involving a property deed worth millions and egos worth their weight in souls.
Suzuki’s twisting plot threads weave a syncopated narrative tapestry, like a torch song missing random key notes. The use of disorienting jump cuts streamlines the anecdotal economy, disallowing extraneous character development as the viewer is expected to understand by proxy. In one scene, Suzuki instigates a daring rescue as Tetsuya saves his femme fondue from a rival gang with an adrenaline car crash…only to cut in the middle and reveal the two of them at a local arcade, with no reference to the previous action. Suzuki takes us from point A to C with few establishing shots or movement during the films 82 minute run time.
Drenched in big neon glitter, the anti-hero traverses Tokyo’s brothels and Western style clubs with stylized transitions, set designs flooded in Day-Glo colors that seem to merge with actual location shots. This duality creates a surreal and dreamlike world for Tetsuya to wander, and the quicksilver action sequences are like James Bond on acid. Both maddeningly brilliant and beautiful. Suzuki ends the film with a betrayal leading to a white hot oblivion though Tetsuya always remains true to the one thing that matters most. Himself.
Final Grade: (B+)
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Three Eco-terrorists play dam busters with little regard to the repercussions of their explosive act of violence. Kelly Reichardt explores the emotional and intellectual landscape of three radicals whom are chillingly not far removed from ordinary peaceful protesters.
The plot concerns Josh, Dena and Harmon as they plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam because of its environmental impact. Their goal seems to be a purpose in and of itself: that is, the act is the purpose and not the outcome. They feel justified in destroying this artificial construct without considering the destructive fallout to the environment and the potential to harm other people. Thus the characters fail to consider the irony of their actions. Director Kelly Reichardt tells an anti-action story: instead of relying on the typical conventions of the Action genre she brings the story into sharp focus, her lens peering into the dark silences and mundane routines of three lives about to change dramatically. From purchasing the titular boat named NIGHT MOVES to securing 500 pounds of fertilizer to build the bomb, Reichardt portrays how typical and rather easy this task becomes which makes the story all the more frightening! When it comes, the explosion is only heard off-screen, which allows a detachment between the act and its implications.
Director Kelly Reichardt also drains the story of melodrama by refusing to reveal or exacerbate the relationships between the characters. It’s never explicitly mentioned that Josh and Dena are a couple (or in the process of becoming one) though they are often shown together. Reichardt takes this implication and undermines this trope by keeping the information out of the story. We only learn that Dena comes from a rich family when they are talking about paying cash for the boat. So is she just a hanger on or a romantic interest? When Josh discovers Dena and Harmon screwing he seems a bit disappointed but again, this is only through subtle body language and not confrontation.
The final Act becomes incredibly tense as the three split and vow to have no contact with one another. The camera focuses tightly upon Josh who is afraid that Dena will succumb to her guilt and confess their crime. Turns out, an innocent man was killed by the flood waters and day by day the newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories of this man’s life and family. This drives Josh past the point of endurance as he is driven to one desperate fatal act. He becomes fueled by self-preservation and not idealism; Josh tracks Dena down and makes sure she remains quiet…forever.
Reichardt frames the murderous act in extreme close-up forcing the audience into a violent conspiracy: here, she does not give us the luxury of emotional detachment or objectivism. Dena’s gurgling sound as Josh strangles her to death is gruesome but strangely the killing seems rather mundane, like the earlier “gunpowder” plot. We are given clues that Dana probably told her friends (it lead to Josh being kicked out of his commune). Josh takes off and is last seen in another part of the state, looking for work. But it seems he is destined for a mobile life of paranoid conspiracies…but it may be better than no life at all.
Final Grade: (A+)
Friday, January 22, 2016
02. BLUE RUIN (Jeremy Saulnier, USA)
03. NIGHT MOVES (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
04. IDA (Pawel Pawlikowsky, Poland)
05. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson, USA)
06. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Dardenne Brothers, France)
07. UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
08. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour, USA)
09. WILLOW CREEK (Bobcat Goldthwait, USA)
10. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Jim Jarmusch, UK)
Monday, January 11, 2016
Newton falls like the proverbial apple; a tree of knowledge offering a poisonous gift whose adverse reaction ensnares him in the garden of Earthly delights. Director Nicolas Roeg eschews science fiction formula and creates an art house film with a complex narrative, utilizing very few establishing shots to delineate time and place while disgorging surreal montage that create a lonely dreamlike atmosphere. He crosscuts between Newton and Dr. Bryce, a teacher whose sexual appetite devours his life, which foreshadows Newton’s downfall and betrayal.
Roeg, a master cinematographer himself, again teams up with Anthony Richmond (DON’T LOOK NOW) and together they capture the isolation and separation, both physiological and spiritually, of a stranger in a strange land, whose plan to save his world goes askew: homo superior dominated by the brute force of a government who tastes of the apple…but must destroy its seed. David Bowie is expertly cast as the phlegmatic alien, his disparate eyes and copper hair adjoined with his gently chiseled visage and contrasted with his firm resolution. The mysterious Thomas Newton hides behind his nomenclature and corporate assets; his true self eventually unmasked by the woman he loves and the man he trusts.
The opening scenes reveal shadow men that relentlessly stalk Newton, and this ambiguous conspiracy is eventually actualized without exposition: we must fit together the broken pieces and independently glean some internal consistency. Time seems subjective to Newton, as he never ages while the world passes quickly, his mistress and cohorts growing into old age while he remains the young non-American. He soon capitulates to the vices and bodily desires of his earthly bondage, a weapon that his captors use to control and conquer. Prodded, injected with drugs, experimented upon and abused in captivity, his usefulness expires and he outlives the warders, walking once again into anonymity.
His home world dying, he uses his remaining fortune to record a hymn to his family with the hope that the radio transmission will be received and understood: a hopeless goodbye, like Major Tom’s desperate plea.
Final Grade: (A)