Perhaps the biggest philosophical issue to confront modern cinema has been the Holocaust and how properly to depict it. Few films have managed to do so more powerfully or what feels more honestly than Son of Saul, the arresting debut of Hungarian director László Nemes which earned him the Grand Prix at Cannes and which makes an early UK appearance as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival (7–22 Nov). Set in the final infernal days of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the film focuses intently, in close-up, on one man, a Hungarian prisoner named Saul Ausländer, who has been made a member of the “special” Sonderkommando, the Jews who were awarded certain privileges for helping out the Germans with jobs such as cleaning up the ash, hauling bodies out of the showers, shepherding the prisoners into the death chambers…
Saul, played by actor Géza Röhrig, spots what he thinks might be the body of his son and he pulls him from a pile and hides the corpse, beginning a desperate, whispered quest to find a Rabbi in the camp who might say Kaddish over this dead child.
The camera sticks on Saul’s haunted, hunted face in long, unbroken, relentless takes. The sounds and horrors of the camp’s unceasing death factory go on in the background, so the viewer has to imagine them, feel them. It is a striking approach to this “genre” and amazingly effective. Somehow, brilliantly, it is not too much to handle either. It’s a depiction of hell, certainly, but Saul is spry and motivated enough to plough on through it. He’s like a fish, darting around a bowl avoiding a net trying to scoop him up.
At the same time, there’s a plot brewing, a prisoner revolution to overthrow the guards, so there are elements of the classic “prison movie” adding to the tension while different languages hum in the air—German, Hungarian, Yiddish.
It really is a masterful work, its breathless intensity and utter control reminding me of the 2007 Romanian Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But it has an even more wide-ranging importance, being one of the first films to come close to depicting what it must have felt like in the maws of those camps, faced with certain death yet possessed of a human’s instinct to survive.
Son of Saul will be the Cannes 2015 film that gets talked about most as it journeys, almost inevitably, to an Oscar nomination (Hungary has already announced it as its official entry). You certainly won’t have seen anything like it.
To lighter fare: Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is set on the fictional, sunlit university campus of Braylin, and deals with crisis-struck philosophy professor Abe Lucas, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his search for meaning.
One of Woody’s classic “blocked” protagonists, Abe becomes a vehicle for exploring themes of randomness, chance and murder—themes which have haunted the filmmaker through Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. Woody delivers a jaunty-looking and sounding film situated a hair’s breadth from comedy but on the knife-edge of tragedy.
Phoenix’s paunchy Abe is given to self-loathing, soaked in sweat and alcohol yet still capable of exciting with his reputation and mercurial thought. Certainly a couple of women on campus are energised by his presence: Rita, a romantically disillusioned faculty wife and scientist (Parker Posey) and the young student Jill (Emma Stone) who believes she can become Abe’s inspiration and muse.
Overhearing a conversation about an injustice in the local town of Newport, Abe elects to take drastic action and commit the perfect murder. Dressing this decision up as the physical enactment of a philosophical conundrum somehow re-enthuses Abe’s entire being, giving him back energy of thought and sexuality.
Phoenix and Stone make an intriguing pair— people, I know, will harp on about the age-gap even if this is one relationship pursued entirely by the younger woman—but their energies are in constant flux, flitting from naïveté and innocence to complicity and sin. Phoenix gives familiar Woody words his own rhythm and Stone teases an intelligence from her lines to create a whip-smart Woody woman taking charge of her own neuroses yet nevertheless hurtling down the wrong path.
When Woody himself doesn’t appear in his own films, they’re generally less comic and certainly feel less Jewish. And so it is with Irrational Man, set entirely out of New York, it has little of what typically defines Woody Allen’s American work. But with its casual name-dropping of Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir and Dostoyevsky, it could never for a moment be mistaken for the work of any other film-maker, except maybe one of those younger French auteurs in Woody’s thrall (Desplechin, Assayas).
What remains very Jewish, very Woody, here, is the inquiry, the guilt, the testing of moral structure, the philosophical jostling and the search for significance. Even while the camera glides around the dappled Braylin campus, existential despair lurks around every corner and corridor. This looks like a loose-limbed comedy but plays like a taut, haunted thriller, plotted with care and choreographed with masterly control.
Irrational Man isn’t Woody’s best work but it is nevertheless a significant film. Nearing his 80th birthday, the filmmaker is still exploring the absurdities of modern existence with a light touch, still unsure if life is funny or tragic, or at least making the viewer unsure.
Also at this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival is low-budget British thriller Orthodox, the story of a Jewish bare-knuckle boxer lured into being an enforcer for what can only be termed a Hassidic mafia.
Stephen Graham stars as Benjamin, kosher butcher by day, brawler by night and family man when possible. (As with so many Jewish films, in précis they always sound like the start of a joke—did you hear the one about the boxing kosher butcher…?)
In flashback we learn how the persecuted Ben became a fighter, helped by his Irish friend Shannon (played by the menacing Michael Smiley). Later, after a spell in prison, Ben’s life falls apart and he gets caught up in the shady property deals carried out by the community leader Joseph Goldberg, played with steely-eyed control by veteran actor Chris Fairbank.
David Leon’s directing debut is powerful, gritty stuff with some wonderful beards and strong performances. It does much to make us mystified and intrigued by the layers of this strange Orthodox community, but it seems to me a touch more specificity would have helped. For instance, I only found out in the closing credits that it was shot in Gateshead, and it puzzled me, throughout, why star Stephen Graham, a famous Scouser, was the only one doing a Cockney accent.