Son of Saul
László Nemes’ Son of Saul is above all a treatise on cinematic minimalism, eschewing visual resplendence only as a way to belie how carefully modulated its visual command of its subject truly is. Tethering its audience to the face of main actor Géza Röhrig not as an anti-formalist gesture but as a haunting lament toward the unclassifiable nature of trauma, Son of Saul surreptitiously removes event to its periphery as a way to reveal that which can’t be formally, objectively understood through any direct visual gesture. It is perhaps the film to most dexterously utilize the corporeal weight of the Holocaust as a case-study for the tangled spindles of memory and cinematic representation since Alain Resnais’ seminal Holocaust feature Night and Fog. In comparison to, say, Schindler’s List, Son of Saul defies any mass-scale anthropological interpretation as fundamentally incomplete. Even more than The Pianist, Nemes’ film recalibrates the Holocaust film so that any attempt to formally order it within a cinema frame – innately containing it and subjecting it to a sort of classifiable definition – is a whiff of historical wishful thinking.
Fittingly, Géza Röhrig’s shell-shocked performance evokes the verboten brittleness of a person acclimatizing themselves to walling off from the world in order to satiate the fractures burned into his soul. Son of Saul’s camera – ever trained on this man – whispers a human tale, yes, but it is a work that takes as its driving impulse the inadequacy of any human story to satiate or provide exegesis on the text of worldly strife in the ‘40s. Which is to say, although the Holocaust is its representational subject, the artistry of Son of Saul’s visual structure is to resist any classifiable world event in its presentation; like Night and Fog, its thesis is a dissection of the gambit of cultural memory and subjective representation more broadly. Rather than eschewing more explicit violence as an ethical gesture against the valid claims that works like Spielberg’s film trivialize the Holocaust, Son of Saul is also deeply, intimately acclimatized to its own ethical greyness as a prism for discussing what exactly defines ethical, or “accurate”, representation in the first place.
Stark and minimalist not as an expression of distanced objectivity but confrontational and claustrophobic in its pressure-locked, abominably corked subjective intensity, Son of Saul resists any and all sweeping generalizations for an intimate portrait in the failure to intimately interpret the world. The anemic day life of Röhrig’s character consists almost exclusively of mediating the implementation of the death showers between their fellow prisoners and the Nazis. Receiving a vague promise of special, sequestered treatment relative to the other prisoners in exchange for taking the burden of actually having to confront the death they wrought away from the Nazis themselves, Röhrig’s character struggles to erect an ethical and mental shield between himself and his actions.
One possible mechanism for him to console himself is to locate a rabbi to provide a fitting prayer for the burial of a Jewish boy (who initially survives the gassing) he spontaneously claims is his son. The familial connection is left ambiguous, as is the reason for his actions, although the most obvious such explanation is the man looking for a way to atone for his sins, if not to fully redeem them. It’s a sufficiently knotty tale of internal chaos explicated by Matyas Erdely’s satisfyingly grainy 35-mm cinematography (which ensures that the dearth of explicit violence never scrubs the film clean with pristine, corporate visuals).
With apologies to the cinematography though, the true innovation of the film, and its primary cinematic masterstroke that recalls the likes of Robert Bresson, is Tamas Zanyi’s indomitable, excoriating sound design, intimating the blaring truth of violence always textured just off-screen but never fully removed from Röhrig’s or our consciousness. Faultlessly tortured and bent in its aural angles, Zanyi’s hovering drone of an endlessly suggestive soundscape violently persuades us to peruse the potentially apocryphal caliber of all our preconceptions and perceptions of the Holocaust shackled by blockades erected not only by the passage of history but by humanity’s undying need to shade itself from the constricting complications of the world. The tension between the minimalist visual presentation and the omnipresent sound dialectically inscribes the very relationship between the insular nature of our own interior realms and the assaultive exterior always suggesting itself no matter how much we hide ourselves.
Ultimately, Nemes reserves judgment for his main character (unlike, say, Hannah Arendt), passing over the opportunity to estimate his failure to effectively come to terms with that which he has helped perpetuate. Why? Not, I think, because Nemes isn’t concerned with the ethical validity of abetting the Holocaust. Instead, I suspect, it is because he abides by the belief that everyone, including the people who write, direct, and play audience to the Holocaust in feature films and other forms of cultural memory, are equally bound by the inscrutability of not only our understanding of the past we don’t experience, but the present we believe we do.
French-Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s international style settles in on a world that bears both the geographic particularity of African cinema and the lingering, autumnal disquiet prevalent in modern Euro-art. The introduction, a poetic lateral amble with an animal gliding across the frame, possibly prey to a predator we don’t see, is hauntingly reconstructed in more human terms for the finale, allowing the film a certain symmetry of form and rhythm. Between those two moments, Sissako favors wide, eye-level shots that neither look up nor down at the humans within, neither lionizing nor demonizing them. Instead, he stares them straight in the face, confronting their essential humanity even as he ties the social constructs of war and religion into more elemental, yet perhaps unclassifiable figments of space and place
Although the film isn’t as luxuriantly, dynamically primary-colored as many African films, nor does it rely quite as dexterously on color as malleable clay for defining character, Timbuktu bears a glistening formal beauty that both humanizes its oppressed landscape whilst surreptitiously teasing the violence that occurs within. Uneroticized horror is tellingly evoked without being fetishized, and the palpable threat of violence suggests the terror and loneliness of life in Mali more than specific, corporeal acts of violence could. Instead, the fear floats into the air, permeating a wide swath of space and returning to Earth in the hearts of the many individuals we see wandering the desert soil and struggling to divine a living for themselves out of the placid kernels of sand that linger beneath their feet, silently privy to all their actions.
In Sissako’s view, though, life can’t but find a way. This is no Dogme-95 miserabilist tract; Sissako recognizes violence, but the focal point rebelliously remains the people who discover moments of tangible humanity within. Women, who are often shadows on the landscape, bustle with survival and quiet resistance anyway. They do not remain quiet voices dotting their environment; rather, they emerge as voices for it, inescapably dotting their oppression with hushed humanity when, for instance, ringing a voice above the venomous crack of a whip. Although Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) – a cattle herder sentenced to death for an accidental action, a flicker of horrible humanity – emerges as something of a protagonist, Sissako’s vision acclimatizes to individual pulses only as a means to redress the cavern of individualism so prevalent in cinema.
Kidane’s story is by no means anything less than heartbreaking, but Sissako’s vision of experience is more collective even if it isn’t communal, choosing to slide in to flutters of many individual lives only with the awareness of the space that binds them all. In a potently De Sican series of fertile visual shifts, Timbuktu cases Kidane’s crisis with tatters of other lives passing by him, not always afforded the privilege of interaction but always connected in more intangible ways suggested in the film’s editing. Especially provoking are the jihadists who tacitly express their fluid human desires – carnal flesh, escape to other worlds – subsumed under the ossified social formality of their organization. The god they trumpet isn’t a corporeal presence in Timbuktu, but an almost spiritual, transcendent humanism hovers over the film nonetheless.
It’s bleak, sensory but not sensationalized cinema that doesn’t so much situate the audience at a remove as remind how tentative and partial a film’s vision of life must be, as well as how harrowing the most silent shapes can become if uttered in an introspective but not clinical patois. Difficult though it may be, Timbuktu infuses every shot with a pregnant pause of sheer humanity.