SUNSET (Napszallta, 2019)

April 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes mesmerized us with his first feature film, SON OF SAUL (2015), the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film. That debut was an incredibly unique viewing experience centered on the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Mr. Nemes got much of the band back together for this follow up, and their collaboration, while a bit frustrating to watch, is again quite fascinating to look at.

Mr. Nemes co-wrote the script with his SON OF SAUL writing partners Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier (also the film’s editor). And for those that share my frustration in watching the film, it’s the story that is likely to blame. Is there a story?  Certainly not in the traditional sense – which makes it difficult to follow or try to explain. Irisz Leiter (played by Juli Jakab) is first seen being fitted for fine hats in the elegant shop that bears her family name. We soon learn her parents both died, and she has been absent from the city for many years. The new owner, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, 2007) is startled to learn of Irisz’s return, though we aren’t sure why he is so uncomfortable around her. Irisz soon discovers she has a brother (a surprise to her) and that he is quite notorious in these parts.

Much of the film focuses on Irisz trying to track down her brother, and then track him down again. That’s the closest thing to a plot we get. Mostly it’s a succession of scenes where people ask questions that never get answered. In fact, there is minimal dialogue to go with the now-familiar camera work of cinematographer Matyas Erdely who utilizes his SON OF SAUL first person perspective with background fuzzed out so that we see what one person is seeing. There is an underlying theme of what is apparently a corrupt part of a mysterious sub-culture in the society – even involving the Royal family. Keep in mind this is 1913 Budapest and war is at hand.

The set design and costume design are extraordinary … especially the lavish hats from the era. The score is from Laszlo Melis (also from SON OF SAUL), and while Ms. Jakab is pleasant to look at, the story is disorienting and unfulfilling. The approach with the camera work is designed to force us to see things through the characters’ eyes, but it’s not enough to offset the incoherent and aimless wanderings of Irisz as she collects scraps of information that may or may not be pertinent. Perhaps you are smarter than I am, and will be able to connect the dots … or at least find dots to work with.

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: