Saul’s inferno: Searing Holocaust drama stuns Cannes festival

The world’s premier film festival soars to new heights with a rookie director’s viscerally powerful evocation of the Nazi death machine, but comes crashing back down with Natalie Portman’s tedious Holocaust-inspired directorial debut.


One gets to meet a lot of obnoxious characters at Cannes, not least among the film critics. Few could top my neighbour at the screening of “Son of Saul”, the outstanding competition entry by Hungarian newcomer Laszlo Nemes. Upon realizing this was a grisly Holocaust story, she sighed: “Here they go again, inflicting this misery upon us.” It was but the first in a catalogue of lamentable (and highly distracting) moans and groans that dragged on throughout the film.

The Holocaust is of course familiar territory for the movies. Time and time again it has been superficially exploited by Hollywood as a dramatic background to plots that have otherwise nothing to do with the history (as in a recent “X-Men”). But rarely has it been portrayed with such wrenching immediacy as in “Son of Saul”, the tale of a Hungarian Jew invested with the most gruesome of missions in a Nazi death camp.

Geza Röhrig plays Saul Auslander (literally, Saul the Foreigner), a member of the Sonderkommando – the units of Jewish deportees who were forced to push fellow Jews into the underground gas chambers, drag their bodies to the crematoriums and then dispose of the ashes in a nearby river. He embodies the ultimate monstrosity conceived by the Nazis: the genocide of a people carried out by its own folk, themselves destined to be slaughtered in turn.

Geza Rohrig (left) stars as Saul Auslander in the stunning debut feature by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes (right).
Geza Rohrig (left) stars as Saul Auslander in the stunning debut feature by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes (right).

A cog in the Nazi death machine, Saul partakes in this slaughter with mechanical detachment. The nauseatingly close camera never leaves him, but his surroundings and victims are blurred: they are no longer human beings, merely shadows to be disposed of as fast as possible. The omnipresent sounds of beatings, shootings and harsh orders barked out in German, Polish and other languages are a reminder of what will befall Saul if he fails to accomplish his mission.

His chilling routine is disrupted when he witnesses the dying throes of a boy he decides was his son. Emotionally awakened, Saul comes up with an impossible task: to save the boy from cremation and find a rabbi who can give him a proper burial. He pursues this endeavour with unflinching resolve, heedless of fellow deportees’ exhortations to help them organize an insurrection. “You abandon the living for the dead,” says another member of the Sonderkommando. In Saul’s world there is nothing worth saving, except the dead.

Produced for a mere $1.5 million (1% of the budget of the “Mad Max” reboot that screened here yesterday), “Son of Saul” is an outstanding first feature by Nemes, who previously worked as an assistant to fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr. There are traces of the revered director in the film’s awe-inspiring simplicity and its focus on the actor, but Nemes has his own style and pace. His harrowing film succeeds in depicting the Nazi death factories without perilous moral verdicts and implausible tales of salvation. Surely, it makes for prize-winning material.

Portman misfires

Natalie Portman’s directorial debut “A Tale of Love of Darkness” is not a Holocaust movie. But this adaption of the eponymous bestseller by Israeli novelist Amos Oz unfolds against the backdrop of genocide and anti-Semitism. It tells the story of Oz’s childhood in British-mandate Palestine and the young State of Israel, detailing his relationship with his mother Fania (played by Portman) and his birth as a writer.

Portman, who was born in Jerusalem and later moved to the US, has made no secret of her obsession with the Holocaust and the ghosts of her ancestors. It is no surprise she was moved by the story of Fania, who left Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, a time when Jews faced a world split into two: the countries they could no longer stay in and those they could not go to. The film follows Fania’s gradual collapse under the burden of the past and the challenge of adapting to a country of orphans.

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” is a celebration of one of Israel’s defining achievements: the preservation and rebirth of Hebrew, a language hardly anyone used in daily life before the war. But its distracting voiceovers, tedious dialogues and exhausting formalism scuttle the whole enterprise. There also some questionable assertions, as when the narrator says the creation of Israel ended "1,000 years" of Jewish yearning for the lost homeland – thereby reducing centuries of Jewish presence and civilization in Europe and North Africa to a miserable exile. It’s safe to say the film was not well received at Friday’s press screening. The sighing and groaning could be heard on all sides, though this time with good reason.

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