Saul fia (Son of Saul, 2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis 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.

Son of Saul film posterCREDITS
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.

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Là-bas (Down There, 2006)

A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.


I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.

Down There film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Akerman and Robert Fenz; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 1 October 2015.

Ida (2013)

It’s fair to say that I was never quite compelled by the subject matter of this film, which sounded altogether too dour, well-meaning and social realist to hold my interest. I could have seen it at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won the main prize) and I dragged my feet upon its eventual release on these shores, but I am happy to say that, having now gone along to a screening, I am quite wrong to have been unwilling to see it. It is a fantastic film, very much more than a simple plot synopsis could convey. For while on the one hand, it is indeed the story of the eponymous novitiate nun who is spending some time with her harder-willed aunt, it’s also a film about personal identity, about Poland’s involvement in World War II and its subsequent history, and about the precarious relationship between Europe and its Jewish population (a story still resonant in a modern era where anti-semitic attacks occur with troubling regularity). It is set in the early-1960s and filmed in a beautifully resonant monochrome recalling iconic Polish films of the post-War period by directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. It’s understated, too, in the way it allows its themes to develop, as our nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised as an orphan and is on the verge of taking her vows, is sent off from her convent to meet her only living relative for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals to her niece that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war, and so they embark on a search for their graves so that Ida can have some closure. But both women have some connection to this terrible unseen event in their history, something the film slowly teases out. Wanda has had more exposure than most to her compatriots’ failures — having served for many years as a high court judge, hearing cases related to war crimes — while Ida is (silently) grappling with her faith. As a film it packs in all kinds of ideas into its concise running time, and is every bit as tightly controlled as any film by Krzysztof Kieślowski. There’s also a striking use of framing, with characters often decentred within shots, generally at the bottom of the image, giving the impression of them sliding away or drowning (there’s a particularly nice example of this when Ida goes to see the confirmation of some of her colleagues). I couldn’t say it exactly has a happy ending, but it all just feels very right.

Ida film posterCREDITS
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Pawlikowski; Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski; Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 21 October 2014.

למלא את החלל Lemale et ha’chalal (Fill the Void, 2012)

It’s not infrequently that I watch films set amongst cultures other than my own; I greatly enjoy seeing communities portrayed on screen of which I will never (or can never) be a part. Every group of people — whether a national culture, a religious group, or some other sub-set (such as a prison, or a workplace, or wherever) — has its own etiquette surrounding the ways its members interact with one another, some more rigidly and formally defined than others. I was very conscious while watching Fill the Void, for example, that such customs are deeply ingrained amongst its Orthodox Jewish characters, and although I wasn’t always certain of what form they took (there are no didactic speeches or condescending explanations), it became increasingly clear when the characters depicted were cleaving to them. In that respect it’s not unlike watching the formal pairings in, say, a Jane Austen film adaptation — depicting another society that I am quite removed from (in time, if not geographically, but it amounts to much the same thing). In fact, the Jane Austen comparison was in my mind during the film, so it was no surprise to see an explicit link to Austen being made by the filmmaker (and by critics in their responses to the film) that I’ve read since watching it. In this case, though, the rituals are within a group of people very much in the same world as us, a group for which the director (being herself Orthodox) has a great deal of respect, and it is this that for me provides the film its fascination.

It helps of course that the film is made so well, and I do hope the director Rama Burshtein moves on to other stories. There is a serene sense of watchfulness, with scenes allowed to unfold without melodramatic prompting, using the minimum of gestural acting — quite often just awkward glances or barely perceptible movements. I suppose this may make it seem slow to some viewers, but I found the style quite transporting. The cinematography itself is burnished by lots of soft focus and very shallow depth of field, at once giving the characters a warm glow and isolating them from their surroundings — effective particularly at moments of heightened emotion, of which there are plenty, even if they are nonetheless quite subtly conveyed.

After all, this is a film dealing with some major checkpoints in life (which is to say, death and marriage) — times when, even for those of us who do not follow any particular faith, religious rituals (or those derived ultimately from religious belief) are more involved. (They are also the kinds of events that make up the domestic fictions of Austen, which probably occasions the comparison.) The protagonist is Shira (Hadas Yaron), whose heavily pregnant sister has just died in childbirth, leaving her husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) compelled by his community to find a new wife and mother for his child. It is Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) who is the one to push her other daughter towards nuptials with Yochay, the ramifications of which are dealt with in the bulk of the film. This then is the kind of scenario which to an outsider would probably occasion damning criticism, and although it’s hardly embraced wholeheartedly here, it is at least handled with some delicacy. It’s never really certain whether we as viewers are supposed to want the match to succeed or not, and that ambiguity is part of the film’s dramatic power, and may affect whether you find the denouement heartwarming or not. In either case, the film allows us enough empathy with the characters that the outcome is warmly affecting even so. The director certainly seems aware of the outsiders’ perspective: when the rabbi asks Shira how she feels about the match, she replies that it’s not about feelings but the rabbi counters that “in fact, it’s only about feelings” — in other words, Shira has a choice and no decision is forced on her.

The acting is excellent, certainly. Yaron has a difficult role to play effectively — a modest, earnest and inexperienced young woman who finds herself rather out of her depth — but does so very capably, never making Shira seem weak; she could easily be seen as a pawn to patriarchal forces, but never quite does. Equally, Klein’s devout husband is able to convey an essence of generosity even within a role that requires him to act in ways that do not always seem fair or just. A lot of work is done through glances and very tiny expressions, which means that the film’s occasional use of extreme close-ups on the protagonists’ faces are dramatically necessary.

The subject of devout religious belief is one that lends itself all too frequently to easy judgement and exaggerated condemnation from filmmakers and commentators. It’s good then to see a perspective such as this one, which works from within to achieve at least a modicum of understanding of a complex subject. The film would therefore have some value if it were just this, but the fact that it’s a sensitively and well-made drama that can warrant comparisons to the work of Jane Austen, is only to its further credit. It certainly fills a void at the heart of mainstream depictions of religious communities, and I look forward to further works from this director.

Fill the Void film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rama Burshtein רמה בורשטין; Cinematographer Asaf Sudri אסף סודרי; Starring Hadas Yaron הדס ירון, Yiftach Klein יפתח קליין, Irit Sheleg עירית שלג; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 19 December 2013.