London Film Festival: Son of Saul and 11 Minutes

Two new movies at London Film Festival with audacious visual storytelling, we review László Nemes' Son of Saul, and 11 Minutes by Jerzy Skolimovski.

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 13 Oct 2015

Son of Saul

Art-house cinema is as susceptible to cliche as its mainstream cousin. And no cinematic trope is more shopworn than the follow-shot.

You know the one: the camera stalks its protagonist, aimed in on the back of their head and shoulders, with the tracking camera seemingly tethered to the character's body. The Dardenne brothers love it. As does Hungarian master of the austere Béla Tarr. It’s no surprise to learn Son of Saul (★★) director László Nemes is a Tarr disciple: the back of the head follow shot, alternating with extreme close ups, are about the only visual tool deployed in this bruising Holocaust thriller.

The result is that the horrors of genocide are filtered through the eyes (or over the shoulder) of the title character, a shell shocked Hungarian jew who has been conscripted into the Sonderkommando, a unit comprised of concentration camp prisoners who assist in the extermination and cleanup of their fellow inmates, temporarily postponing their own execution.

Employing a shallow depth of field, Nemes’s shooting style works like a smear of vaseline over the lens: Saul is in sharp focus while the hellish chaos around him stays hazy; bodies pile up as indistinct pink blurs. The soundtrack, a cacophony of orders being barked and final screams of terror being expelled, doesn’t let us escape the genocidal nightmare, however. It’s a combination that’s both coy and gratuitous.

One body, out of the mounds of anonymous corpses, catches Saul’s attention. That of a young boy, who he singles out for reprieve. He saves him from a ghoulish, Mengele-like autopsy and begins a search of the camp for a Rabbi to give him a proper burial, much to the chagrin of his fellow Sonderkommandos, whose lives along with his own are put at risk, as well as a long-planned prison break. So here’s yet another example of a corrupted man trying to find salvation by saving one symbol of innocence – another exhausted movie cliche.

Visually and sonically, Son of Saul is bracing, but its power diminishes as the film wears on; we become numb to Nemes’s bravura direction just as Saul has become numb to mass murder.

It’s telling that the two moments where the camera breaks from our protagonist, opening out to take in the hellscape of a mass execution of a freshly-arrived truckload of jews, and then to another character’s perspective, are the most devastating in the film. However, these scenes can’t justify the monotony of the rest of the movie.

Notes from the Twitteratti:

11 Minutes

No one could accuse Jerzy Skolimovski (The Shout, Essential Killing) of a dearth of visual ideas in 11 Minutes (★★★★), a fractured puzzle movie in which several characters collide in dizzyingly constructed vignettes of cosmic timing.

The episodes in themselves are not particularly remarkable: it’s the skill with which the 77-year-old Polish auteur stitches them together that really impresses.

We’re introduced to an actress being pushed towards the casting couch by a sleazy Hollywood director; a hotdog vendor with a dark past; a drug courier who’s making cuckolds out of his powerful clients; a young lad who’s preparing to commit a crime. We also follow a German Shepard, seeing the world from his canine point of view.

These slight sketches, some whimsical, some brooding, create a vivid tapestry of modern-day Warsaw, the city providing a backdrop of sleek lines in steel and glass.

The film opens with a collage of the characters we’re about to follow shown in a myriad of digital imagery: homemade porn films, CCTV, webcam confessionals. This implicit suggestion that we’re all under digital scrutiny is made explicit midway through the film as a city surveillance operator with a glitching monitor is introduced.

As the film builds to its operatic finish, each character converges around the same corner of town and we’re left with the realisation that in our overly-surveyed world, all of us, sinners and saints, are subject to chance and chaos. The theme is nihilistic but its execution is thrilling.

Notes from the Twitteratti:

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London Film Festival runs until 18 Oct