Recently I wrote about what I am looking for when I go to the movies – the suspension of disbelief being paramount. However, there are times when one needs to see a film, a difficult, challenging film from which you know you will emerge shattered, angry, sad. This year the BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language went to first time director, Hungarian László Nemes for his overpowering Son of Saul – which had already won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2016.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had to watch the film in order to be able to vote as a BAFTA member, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see it. My late father escaped the Holocaust and never returned to Germany or spoke about his life as a kid growing up in Germany in the early thirties. The most recent ‘Holocaust’ Film I had watched – a very different treatment and a documentary to boot, and which I have written about at length before, was André Singer’s Night Will Fall, which he himself described as the triumph of content over style. I would argue that Son of Saul is an overpowering marriage of all the cinematic arts; sound design, cinematography, editing, costume and make-up and above all, performance, together delivering a truly visceral sense of what it was to be an inmate of an extermination camp.
Nemes, interviewed in IndieWire said, ‘I’ve always wanted to speak about the experience of the camp. I didn’t want to do it the same way as others do, because I thought it was not authentic and couldn’t talk to these generations. It couldn’t have empathy, but something different that could work against that. I didn’t see it as ambitious or a radical directorial approach. It was my way of saying something that was really important for me and hasn’t been talked about in a way to reach the soul of the audience.’
Sometimes we wonder if there is any more one can wish to say on the subject or would want to be subjected to, but hearing what Nemes has to say about why he made the film, I then can feel that yes, I must see this film. It offers me a way to engage with a form of cinematic truth. And Nemes employs this so well because it is not what you see beyond, around or behind the character, but what you imagine, that makes the film so visceral and immersive. Nemes goes on to say;
‘I think that what I came to understand is big stories such as the Holocaust are always made in a way that reassures the audience. In their fears, in their hopes, these are stories of survival. And the Holocaust is not about survival, it’s about the extermination of the Jews of Europe. I think it’s the difference in mechanism that was put in place unconsciously after the war by artists and people who came back and the messengers from the camp, but this complicates the perception of the Holocaust itself, the experience of the camp. It contributed to a dogma around it. It’s always the same path; you’re not confronted with anything. You show a lot, you tell things, you suggest the guilt lies with this guy or these others guys. It’s a well-established set of signals.’
It is never about the suspension of disbelief but about a way to believe. Nemes clearly wanted to reach a new audience. He is quoted as saying ‘There are new generations coming through all the time who need to know the story.’ This sentiment chimes with our own mantra, ‘Lest We Forget,’ the Last Post, the importance of Armistice Day and memory.
No one wanted to finance Nemes film. They were too scared, too certain no one would want to watch it, fearful of public reaction, etc., etc. Thankfully the Hungarian Film Fund fully funded Son of Saul and because of the overwhelming response at Cannes where it was premiered in 2015, Sony Pictures picked up distribution. I doubt it will be the last Holocaust movie, but it is certainly one of the most important films I have ever seen on the subject.
Now broaden the issue so it is not just about what do we want from cinema but what is it for? Certainly it is for films like Son of Saul. I was pointed to a video from The School of Life that asks this question. It is certainly worth watching.
I also think that for the student of Film Culture, despite its, for me, rather irritating sense of certainty, if one considers the five tenets within the film which it claims cinema addresses:
We take our troubles too seriously,
We’re not careful enough,
Ordinary life feels too boring,
We find it difficult to relate,
We suffer from excessive timidity,
I do wonder what this is all trying to really tell me. As with so many things in life, the best come to those who wait. In the case of the School of Life Film, the final minute includes excerpts from Mark Cousins 2009 TV documentary The First Movie recounts the wonder and complete suspension of disbelief that is experienced by kids watching firstly, The Red Balloon, French film-maker, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 masterpiece, and Spielberg’s 1982 equally magical classic, ET – The Extra Terrestrial. Forget the fancy definitions and lists. Yes, sometimes watching films can be and should be difficult, but for the most part it is and shall remain fun. I rest my case.