March 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Learning of the courageous people who found their own way to battle the Nazis during World War II never gets old. Sometimes brain power and courage are more important than gun power. Such is the case in this latest from writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who brings a fascinating story from within the French Resistance to the big screen. This is a group that rescued 10,000 orphaned kids, and this is a story of one special man from within that group.

Jesse Eisenberg (and an iffy French accent) plays Marcel, the son of a multi-generational Jewish butcher in Strasbourg France. Out of familial duty, Marcel works at the butcher shop with his father, but his passion is in performing arts. One evening his dad (Karl Markovics) ‘catches’ him performing a silent Charlie Chaplin act on stage at a local cabaret. A parental lecture follows. Marcel’s penchant for entertaining does come in handy when he helps his brother Alain (Felix Moati) and cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig, SON OF SAUL) rescue 123 orphans.

The opening sequence in the film finds young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, Lorna Luft in JUDY) witnessing her Jewish parents being murdered in the street outside their Munich home by Nazis in 1938. We next see her in the group of 123 orphans noted above. As a kind of framing device, we flash forward to 1945 in Nuremberg, as General George S Patton (Ed Harris) is addressing the troops and telling the story of a remarkable man. That man is Marcel, and the film then takes us through his journey and we “see” the story that General Patton is “telling.”

When Marcel and his brother agree to join the French Jewish Resistance (also known as Organization Juive de Combat, OJC), they face more danger, and maintain their focus on rescuing orphans. Helping in the cause is Emma (Clemence Poesy, IN BRUGES), and a mutual respect and attraction forms between she and Marcel. The brutality of the war is shown through the actions of Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). As the head of the Gestapo in France (and known as The Butcher of Lyon), Barbie works out of the Hotel Terminus, and his sadistic tendencies find their way into the Resistance.

Once the war escalates to a certain point, the Resistance must decide whether it’s best to continue hiding the kids, or risk the perilous journey across the Alps in hopes of freedom. In reality, it’s not much of a decision, as staying put likely means torture, if not death. There are some touching moments between Marcel and the kids, and some acts of pure bravery from all involved.

At times, the film teeters into LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL territory, but never for long. The moments of pure terror are well presented, yet never overly graphic. We feel the stress of the Resistance as they struggle to get the kids to safety, and feel their pain in tragic losses. As the film ends, General Patton finishes his story by introducing his story’s Marcel. The spotlight then lands on Marcel Marceau in full make-up and costume. Marceau, of course, went on to become famous and beloved around the world as the most famous mime. Filmmaker Jakubowicz has delivered yet another fascinating story of heroism and courage … another story that deserves to be remembered.

watch the trailer:

SON OF SAUL (Saul fia, Hungary, 2015)

January 21, 2016

son of saul Greetings again from the darkness. Not wanting to watch another movie related to the Holocaust is understandable. Why should you purposefully agree to experience the misery and unfathomable horror that occurred? The simple answer is that we should never forget one of the darkest and inexcusable periods in human history. Director Laszlo Nemes delivers a new approach … a different viewpoint … and it grabs us and doesn’t let go.

The startling opening is a long-tracking shot featuring Saul Auslander (played by Geza Rohrig) and his duties as part of the Sonderkommando unit at 1944 Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The red X on his jacket relegates Saul to corralling the next round of Jews into the gas chamber and then cleaning up for the next group. The reward of this position means the delay of his own inevitable death. It’s a closer, more intimate look at a process that we have not prevented ourselves to think much on.

What we soon realize is that dialogue is minimal and most of what we see is as if we were standing right beside or just behind Saul. The shallow focus means much in our sight line is blurred, and we are exceptionally dependent on the sound – what we hear often conveys more of the message than what we see. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely never allows our eyes to drift … he shows us only so much, forcing our brain to process and interpret so many more clues.

The horrific proceedings may be blurred, but it’s a devastating experience nonetheless. Saul’s stoic face masks his true emotions and disgust, and prevents him from drawing any unwanted attention. Saul’s dependability as a Sonderkommando changes in the blink of an eye – he sees the body of a young boy whom he claims is his own son. He becomes obsessed with finding a Rabbi to allow for a proper burial for the boy. It seems clear that this mission is a chance to break from his soul-crushing duties and grab a bit of redemption before it’s too late. Unfortunately, the timing of this mission conflicts with a planned prisoner uprising … adding more complexity to a nearly impossible quest.

This is the feature film debut of director Laszlo Nemes, who also co-wrote the story with Clara Royer. Some of the specifics are drawn from “Voices from Beneath the Ashes” (edited by Ber Mark) and “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” by Miklos Nyiszli. It’s a fearless vision for Holocaust storytelling with many open-ended issues (we don’t always know identities and positions of those we see) and few conclusions provided. But then we all know the ultimate conclusion, and this look may be the most devastatingly intimate look we have ever had.

It’s not a movie that allows you to kick back on the sofa and simultaneously catch up with Facebook. It demands and deserves attention and patience. Nothing here is designed to allow us a “hands off” view from a safe distance. In fact, the lack of traditional story structure and dialogue direction forces us to face the ugliest reality through a different perspective than we’ve ever considered. Powerful stuff.

watch the trailer: