Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.
I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.
CREDITS Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes. Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.
This screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).
Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.
Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.
Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.
CREDITS Director László Nemes; Writers Nemes and Clara Royer; Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély; Starring Géza Röhrig; Length 107 minutes. Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015.
I only started this blog just over a month ago, but one of the sites I followed early on was Movie Lottery. The author on that site is using, well, a lottery in order to decide which films to watch, as a response to her having a large collection of unwatched movies. I too have many DVDs and boxsets I’ve bought over the years currently gathering dust, some of them I bought because I’d seen them and loved them, some are films I’ve not yet even seen. Therefore, I’m trying out her lottery method of getting through them: I’ve written the titles on slips of paper, put them in a hat, and on Saturday evening, I pulled one out at random. The difference is just that my DVDs include a lot more European arthouse films (purchased in those enthusiastic years when I was fresh out of a film studies major), as you may have guessed already from some of the bias in my reviews.
PS I’m always willing to try other ideas for getting more of a range of films reviewed on this site that aren’t new releases, so if you’ve got a good idea (or just some recommendations for films you’d like me to watch and, inevitably, review), let me know!
FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 1 || Director Miklós Jancsó | Writers Gyula Hernádi and Imre Vadász | Cinematographer Tamás Somló | Starring András Kozák, Sergey Nikonenko | Length 109 minutes | Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 18 August 2003 (and at home on DVD, Saturday 27 April 2013) || My Rating good
The Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó came to prominence for English-speaking viewers in the 1960s with films like this one, though more famously its follow-up Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965), and even now, pushing into his 90s, is still active in his native land. However, those 60s and early-70s films are quite different from the few of his more recent films I’ve seen, and it may be their peculiar thematic focus on the way that punishment and oppression are doled out almost arbitrarily by those in power that endeared them to those febrile politically-engaged times. But cinematic fashions fade over time, and like Michelangelo Antonioni who inspired him, Jancsó has lost much of his mid-60s cachet, though his style has in turn more recently inspired his compatriot Béla Tarr. There’s no reason, though, why Jancsó’s way with steely-eyed widescreen power plays shouldn’t at least be of as much interest to the politically conscious as they are to those of a cinephiliac bent.
To those latter viewers (which I hope includes some of my present readership), what’s most striking about this imperial phase of Jancsó’s art — which My Way Home to some extent kicks off — is his way with the sinuous long-take tracking shot. It’s not just empty stylistics as it might be with many directors, but in his best works is used as a way of capturing character dynamics, and specifically the power relationships amongst them. There are some signs of this engagement even in this early work, as the unnamed central character (played by András Kozák), a 17-year-old Hungarian schoolboy, flees the Nazi-controlled front towards the end of World War II. Jancsó’s long-take long shot picks him out against the vastness of the landscape, moving in as he weaves around the trees, only for a new set of antagonists (Russians) to literally encroach from the sides of the frame to take him captive. This motif is repeated later in this film (and more prominently in subsequent films), and is only built upon, for it encapsulates the heart of his thematic dynamic: the arbitrariness of power.
Prominent too is the undulating Hungarian landscape, particularly its extensive plains, not least due to Jancsó’s use of the long shot, with human figures often reduced to specks framed by the vastness of nature. One particularly favoured technique is the helicopter shot, framing (often running) figures against the ground, flattening them and making them seem minuscule and helpless, another way of encoding power dynamics within the cinematic screen.
If this all seems like it could come across to the viewer as a little arid, especially when combined with the stark black-and-white imagery, then to a certain extent it is. Yet viewer identification with the protagonists isn’t eschewed to the extent it is in Jancsó’s later films, where there are often no readily identifiable individuals and where much of the meaning is telegraphed via frequently opaque symbolism. No, in My Way Home, there is at the heart a story of two young men from either side of conflict (the Hungarian youth I’ve already mentioned, and his Russian captor tasked in this bleak agrarian outpost with looking after a herd of cows). They do not speak the other’s language, yet come to trust and care for one another, in what is identifiably a human story. It ends up being a nice little film, at the edges of which brew the caustic criticisms of power that Jancsó would later come to focus on.