Second viewing of László Nemes’ debut film was a stirring revelation
I think the key to this film (and with my own struggle with the first viewing) here is by talking about the two definitions of aesthetic. There’s the adjective “aesthetic”- concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty—which Son of Saul is devoid of almost completely (on purpose- which I’ll get to later)- then there is the noun “aesthetic”- a set of principals underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement and that is where Son of Saul lands with of the greatest cinematic achievements of 2015. It may not be pleasing to your eyes and ears (Breaking the Waves from von Trier isn’t either always) but it is an artistic triumph nonetheless—both formally and intellectually
Starts with a blurred opening image that shifts into soft focus when Géza Röhrig (playing Saul) comes into view of the camera. The decision to shoot in soft focus, or more often shallow focus, and have camera sitting right on his shoulder or neck is carried out for the duration of the work- an inspired, rigidly formal, stylistic choice. The tight aspect ratio –1.37 : 1– fits that attempt as well.
The sound design is meticulous as well and purposeful, designed not to be beautiful or dramatic– but authentic to Saul’s world- his point of view—ambient noise, claustrophobic, ghastly screams, humanities ugliest, speaking in whispers
The point of view camerawork (attached to his shoulder or tethered closely to him) predates (and I’m sure inspired) Aronofsky’s Mother! in 2017 (Aronofsky experiments with POV in other works including the reverse head harness POV in several films used by Scorsese in the Rubber Biscuit scene with Keitel in Mean Streets). It is on Saul’s shoulder or the nape of the neck cinema if you will. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant seems like an important text as Van Sant’s camera is like a ghost tracking these characters a few paces behind. I just watched Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake which is a film shot in the first person POV—this inventiveness seems like a cousin to the long-take or one-take efforts and
achievements in the 2010’s of Gravity, Birdman, 1917, Victoria or even Russian Ark from the decade before and Rope back in 1948 from Hitchcock- ambitious cinema
Saul has an X on his back, both a symbol of his position as Sonderkommando and a constant horrific reminder of his inevitable fate
The narrative is simple like Bicycle Thieves (another important text to this film here)- a proper burial for the body of the boy, find a Rabbi—and Saul is possessed and determined in his task (a dogged determination mirrors by Nemes in his approach)
It is avant-garde, experimental, confident
Unpleasant on purpose- skewing conventional drama—I didn’t see it until after but it did not surprise me that Nemes, his DP and production designer had a dogma or set of rules similar to the von Trier movement in the 1990’s—here the goal was not to make a horror film, not to make it beautiful or pleasing or the eye or ear, to stay within a certain field of vision on this journey – and it succeeds, you are with Saul in this living hell (Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero a precursor- realism and neorealism)—Nemes cites Come and See and the atrocities there as an important work
the entire film is suffocating and visceral- but the scene of Saul heading to the pit is particularly bleak- a baby crying, gunshots, screams, flood lights are in your eyes—harrowing
ends on a smile as the boy makes his way into the forest
Nemes worked on Bela Tarr’s The Man From London as an assistant though I do think he’s far more of a realist (the long takes from Tarr are present here)—this is more Dardenne brothers’ realism than Tarr
A Must-See film at least- could go higher with more time and/or study
Hell Yeah!!! Extraordinary review! You completely covered the cinematic importance of the film which in my opinion may be the 3rd best of 2015 after Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, although it also receives a little push for the 3rd slot from The Assassin, which I rewatched recently and has struck me as one of the most purely beautiful films of the decade.
@Cinephile– haha I thought of our discussion on Son of Saul. You were right– I was wrong. Happy you like the review here. Thanks
@Drake– Haha, when I entered your blog and saw a review of Son of Saul…… I clicked immediately….. extremely happy that we’re on the same page. I want to add that your appreciation for this film may lead you to unlocking Holy Motors because I find a big similarity between the two, both share the second aesthetic you talk about here. They don’t showcase the visual beauty you’d expect for a big achievement like this but both feature formal and intellectual power of the highest order… You plan rewatching Holy Motors in the future?
@Cinephile– I’d like to get to all of Carax’s films again before Annette in 2021. Carax is actually up next on my top 250 directors but I guess my challenge when comparing Holy Motors and Son of Saul is how specific Son of Saul is — repetition, formal rigor, rinse, repeat– Holy Motors is the opposite, no? I’ll shut up until I see it again– I know you’re comparing the two in broader terms than I am here- but you understand what I mean?
@Drake— Yes, I understand. Holy Motors is a different but at the same time unique and impressive experimentation with film form in my estimation. I’m hyped to see what you think of it when you’ll get to it in some time (I suppose in the next two weeks, right?). It’s a MS film for me. I could see it going MP but I need to hear some thoughts from someone who considers it a MP that maybe they’ll help me to go higher. I have heard some opinions of other cinephiles who evaluate it so high and they’re good food for thought for my next viewing. I also want to add that there’s repetition in Holy Motors, driving with the limousine from appointment to appointment is indication of formal repetition.