ITHACA, NY – In time for the 88th Academy Awards, two Best Foreign Language Film nominees, including last night’s winner, are now playing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis.
[do_widget id= text-55 ]
The first, hailing from Denmark, is Tobias Lindholm’s A War. From the same writer-director of A Hijacking (2012), and with much of the same cast, this similar, vaguely-titled film looks at the blood spilled and allegiances formed in battle from a discomfiting, ambivalently moral point of view.
A gruelling, oft-infuriating tragedy broken into two distinct acts, A War strives for an immediate, you-are-there realism that does not square with its caricatured supporting players (especially its female characters) or lack of feeling. The result is cold, curious film bound to be divisive.
With a tight focus on Commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) for most of its duration, A War foregrounds his two goals from the start: 1) Cmdr. Pedersen wants to keep his soldiers safe and, most of all, 2) he wants to reunite with his family back in Denmark.
A possible lapse of judgment in fulfilling that first goal leads to him precariously realizing the second, as he is summoned to a Danish court to be tried for war crimes. The ensuing trial concerns the disconnect between civilian and military life, which is especially pronounced with the Royal Danish Army, serving in Afghanistan, in the early 2010s.
The domestic courtroom drama of the second half pales next to the first half, which pays attention to military process and the dangers that dog its defenders, as well as hapless civilians. A recurring scene of sorts is that of first aid surgery, applied to a soldier or burned Afghani girl, that proves ineffective in the short term.
Lindholm pushes this motif too far by alluding to it with Pedersen’s family back home, when his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), rushes one of their sons to the emergency room, but otherwise Lindholm’s theme is one of the cyclical, pitiful nature of death and supposedly modern warfare.
It’s powerful enough, but once the action relocates to the witness chair, A War starts running on empty. Pedersen’s defense attorney, Martin (Søren Malling, excellent), pushes for his client to lie in his testimony, and Lindholm’s drab, handheld aesthetic does not externalize the commander’s moral reckoning in any convincing way.
Instead, the dialectic between Pedersen’s beleaguered soldier and the dogmatic prosecutor out for blood played by Charlotte Munck becomes hopelessly one-sided, given the sentimentality of Pedersen’s family life, and his yearning to return to it, throughout the film.
At his worse, Lindholm washes the soundtrack with faux-profound ambient music and watches Danish soldiers and Afghani children fly a kite, or he feeds lines like, “Is it true that you killed children?” to the protagonist’s daughter. At his best, he links together the chain of sudden, violent deaths, viewing war as a painful narrative of inexorable cause-and-effect.
The second film that opened at Cinemapolis Friday has amassed a formidable reputation since premiering last May at Cannes. There it won the Grand Prix, the festival’s second place honor, and in the months since it has played at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, has won a Golden Globe, and has earned the approval of Claude Lanzmann, the legendary filmmaker and writer best known for the documentary Shoah. Just last night, it won the Oscar for Bes
On top of all that, Son of Saul also marks the debut from László Nemes, a young Hungarian filmmaker who trained under Béla Tarr. There is no question this marks a supremely confident first feature, displaying formal rigor and unleashing a sensorial experience that is nightmarish and overpowering. T
That the subject matter is the Holocaust, the setting Auschwitz, and the protagonist a member of the Sonderkommando (German for “special unit,” Jewish prisoners forced to dispose of their people’s corpses) slots it in a filmmaking tradition that audiences, Jews and Gentiles alike, have shown interest in since George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank, but it also heaps extra, needed scrutiny to this project.
Similar to Lindholm’s approach in A War but with infernal colors and far less breathing room, Nemes keeps the camera on Saul (Géza Röhrig, a teacher and poet by trade) from start to finish, to the extent that his surroundings appear a horrendous blur.
In the sickening opening scene, Saul works like an automaton outside the gas chamber, looking to the floor and grabbing clothes and valuables left by those dying inside. With notable exceptions, death occurs off-camera in Son of Saul, tuned out by our protagonist who might possibly be going mad.
The conflict arises soon after, once Saul looks up from his cleaning duties and sees a boy’s body he believes is his son. Initially resigned, Saul becomes adamant in finding a rabbi who can help give his son a proper burial away from the crematorium. He takes grave risks and endangers the lives of his fellow prisoners in his quest, the meaning of which is to be weighed by the viewer.
For this viewer, the stream of horrors, filmed in long and dense takes, takes on a lurid, eyes-half-open voyeurism before long, once Saul’s motivation cements and the film evolves only by seeing how many executions it can glimpse at without really “showing” them.
French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard has long lamented cinema’s failure to record what happened in the gas chambers, given the millions of deaths and dearth of documentary evidence. No doubt cognizant of Godard’s views, Nemes responds with a muffled simulation of Holocaust horrors, a belated and dubious achievement.
More useful are the few scenes that focus on the Polish Resistance and the one time cameras actually found their way into Jewish hands at the camps. In a haunting, tense sequence, Saul assists an inmate in taking photos of an outdoor cremation pit and then hiding the film before SS guards return.
Smoke from the pits drifts into the shed as the unknown photographer stands and shoots his famous evidence, with Saul watching on. As one of the few acts of “conventional” heroism (a word Nemes has used to knock Schindler’s List), the clandestine capture adds desperately needed context, and poetry, to this troubling film.
[do_widget id= text-61 ]