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SON OF SAUL

Producer: Gabor Sipos and Gabor Rajna
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Writer: Clara Royer and Laszlo Nemes
Stars: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sandor Zsoter, Marcin Czarnik, Jerzy Walczak, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Kamil Dobrowlski, Amitai Kedar, Istvan Pion, Juli Jakab, Levente Orban and Attila Fritz
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

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Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes makes an auspicious debut with this harrowing portrait of life and death at Auschwitz-Birkenau that also becomes a tale of redemption for one of its Jewish prisoners. And Saul (Geza Rohrig) is more than just a prisoner: he’s one of the Sonderkommandos, inmates who, in return for some paltry privileges and a chance to live a bit longer, herd those selected for execution into the gas chambers, collect their clothes and valuables and then take their corpses to the crematoria for disposal (and clean up the ashes). As some commentators have observed, the system was one that only increased the barbarity of Nazi methods, since in a way it tried to make the prisoners themselves complicit in the fulfillment of the Final Solution.

The opening sequence of the film—in which cinematographer Matyas Erdely, utilizing the old, square aspect ratio that concentrates our eyes on a limited perspective, rigorously follows Saul as he engages in his grisly work, keeping the focus on him as the horrors occur just out of reach visually (though we can hear the screams of the dying)—is incredibly gripping, and that same claustrophobic effect continues throughout the film, which never leaves Saul’s presence. The effect is almost of a single tracking shot that makes it impossible for us to look away from Saul even as our view remains limited by his experience, the terrors of which, of course, he strains to minimize.

But in that first sequence at the gas chamber something extraordinary happens: a young boy, who should have been killed by the fumes, has just barely survived. The camp doctors are astonished, and quickly finish the job; but they intend an autopsy to try to determine how the youth could have escaped death. More astoundingly, Saul recognizes the boy as his son, or at least says that he does; and he’s determined both that the body will not be desecrated and that he will find among the prisoners a rabbi to say the Kaddish over it. That quest becomes so all-consuming that Saul brushes aside demands that he join in an uprising the other Sonderkommandos are planning, since their term of service are coming to an end and they are scheduled to be liquidated and replaced. (That aspect of the plot situates the tale in early October, 1944, quite late in the war—a fact confirmed by Saul’s Hungarian nationality, since the roundup of Jews from that country was delayed until spring of that year.)

Clearly for Saul the desire to honor this one body with a proper burial is more than a chance decision, or even a father’s desire to see that his son’s corpse is treated rightly. It’s a means by which Saul can, in some small measure, atone for his role in the camp’s grisly work, a reassertion of his humanity, and of his Jewish identity, in the face of the profound evil that he feels he’s collaborated in. Whether the boy is truly his biological son is immaterial—for Saul he represents every Jew, and the need to recover to some degree the dignity that has been ripped from them all.

Of course no single story—whether it be Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” on the screen or Elie Wiesel’s “Night” on the page—can encompass the full horror of the Holocaust, and “Son of Saul” is no exception; Nemes realizes this, as the intense focus on a single man, both narratively and visually, suggests. Whether the redemption scenario can bear the weight of meaning Nemes places upon it is debatable. Still, he and his co-writer Clara Royer have adroitly employed the film’s concentration to point toward a larger perspective. By including the references to the prisoner rebellion of October 7, for example, they raise the issue of the types of resistance that individuals could choose—violent, as in the case of the rebels, or spiritual, as with Saul. And by alluding to the imminent execution of the Sonderkommando unit within the same context, the film points up the fanaticism of the Nazis in trying to complete their genocidal mission even as the Soviets were pushing further and further into Eastern Europe. So while “Son of Saul” necessarily presents a limited viewpoint, it’s one that encourages the viewer to think beyond it.

And within that perspective, it’s extraordinarily powerful, the combination of Nemes’ kinetic direction, Laszlo Rajk’s grimly evocative production design, Erdely’s subtle camerawork (which reveals a great deal at the margins of the boxy frame), Tamas Zanyi’s sound design (which tells much that the visuals don’t explicitly show and creates a cacophony of languages and ambient noise) and Rohrig’s intense performance carrying us along on an emotional whirlwind. The supporting cast does uniformly excellent work, but their contributions are like pieces of a mosaic in which Rohrig is the dominant figure.

There’s no question that “Son of Saul” is difficult to watch. But there’s no question that it’s worth watching.

THE FAST RUNNER (ATANARJUAT)

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It’s always been difficult to transfer myth from the page (or, in many instances, oral tradition) to film; one need only recall that the best cinematic treatment of a Homeric work, for instance, is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”–hardly a literal rendering of “The Odyssey.” There are occasional successes, of course: Fritz Lang’s “Die Niebelungen” and Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible” are notable, even if the Russian director’s films represent mythic history rather than pure myth. Otherwise we’re left with juvenile stuff like Mario Camerini’s “Ulysses” (1958) and Robert Wise’s “Helen of Troy” (1955), or the various Ray Harryhausen versions of the ancient tales, not to mention the innumerable Italian sword-and-sandal entries of the fifties and sixties and the junky stabs as medieval epics like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

That’s one reason why Zacharias Kunuk’s “Atanarjuat,” Englished as “The Fast Runner,” is so notable: timeless and otherworldly, it brings a myth vividly to life on screen, remaining true to the original while doing so. Basically the film presents the Inuit version of the tale of the hero who brings law and principle to a disordered primitive society–a universal story that appears in virtually all cultures in different forms. This variant, which has come down among the native inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic through centuries of storytelling, involves the titular hero, the younger of two brothers (the other is Amaqjuaq) who are part of a small group of families governed by a shaman whose rule has been contaminated by violence. The legacy of evil has been inherited by the shaman’s son Oki, whose betrothed Atuat is drawn instead to Atanarjuat; he defeats Oki in a contest of strength and claims Atuat as his wife, earning Oki’s unending hatred. Oki’s sister, the calculating Puja who’s always longed for Atanarjuat, inveigles her way into his household and ultimately gives her brother grounds to attempt to kill both Amaqjuaq and Atanarjuat. He manages to slay only the older sibling, however; Atanarjuat escapes the ambush, fleeing his pursuers naked across the snow-covered tundra–his speed saves him, though only barely. He takes refuge with Qulitalik, the elderly brother of Panikpak, Oki’s grandmother; Qulitalik is returning to the clan after a long absence in response to his sister’s mysterious summons that he assist in cleansing the group of the blood-evil that has long plagued it. (Panikpak, it should be noted, has also been Atuat’s most ardent supporter throughout.) Eventually a recovered Atanarjuat accompanies Qulitalik to confront Oki, and together with Panikpak they use both strength and magic to restore right order in the clan.

As fashioned by the late Paul Apak Angilirq, Kunuk and Norman Cohn from tellings of the legend collected from eight Inuit elders, “Atanarjuat” relates the story baldly, keeping the motivations simple, not attempting to explain away the magical elements, and avoiding pseudo-poetic techniques in favor of a straightforward simplicity. That keeps the mythic character of the piece intact, and so too do the unforced performances of the cast (partly professional and partly not) and the icy, desolate yet strangely beautiful locations, which lend the picture an air of authenticity that a huge budget could never buy. Kunuk’s direction is similarly austere and unhurried; by refusing to hasten things along, he builds an atmosphere of overwhelming emptiness that’s reminiscent of the mood David Lean generated in a similarly harsh climate at the other end of the temperature scale in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Of course, that desert epic was a huge production in every sense, with a starry cast, a massive budget and a tried-and-tested crew. “Atanarjuat,” on the other hand, was clearly made on a far smaller scale; out-takes included during the end credits show a tiny group of actors and behind-the-camera folk operating under the most challenging circumstances without any frills or pretensions. It’s the directness of the result–the willingness to let the ancient story unfold slowly, like a languid dream of the past, without apology for the mysterious beliefs than underlie the characters’ actions–that makes it a rare achievement, a document of anthropological as well as cinematic interest. “Atanarjuat” will be too deliberate and obscure for many viewers, but the adventurous should find it an extraordinary experience.