Son of Saul

In these dismal times, when the issue of ‘left antisemitism’ are being ruthlessly and cynically instrumentalised within British politics in an attempt to neutralize opposition to the Israeli state, and destroy the leftist surge within the Labour Party, it’s salutary experience to see the Hungarian director László Nemes’s shattering  Son of Saul.   If you go to the cinema in order to escape from reality or return home with a warm glowing feeling, then this won’t be a film for you.

It’s a ferociously powerful, uncompromising, and morally and artistically audacious artistic statement  about one of the most terrible periods in human history, which depicts the nightmarish sub-world of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau, who collected the possessions of murdered Jews as they were led into the gas chambers, and cleared away and burned their bodies afterwards.

To call this film a ‘Holocaust drama’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.   From the first awful scene in which a trainload of new arrivals are brutally and efficiently dispatched to the gas chambers while a voice through a loudspeaker promises them a shower followed by cups of tea, Nemes takes the viewer, perhaps as far as cinema can, into the epicentre of the Nazi genocide, and brilliantly re-imagines events that have already begun to fade and that many of us would prefer not to think about at all.

The fictional ‘story’ on which all this hangs, revolves around what may be an act of love or an act of madness – or perhaps both – as the Jewish Sonderkommando Saul Auslander tries to bury a boy he  believes to be his son.  Is the boy really his son or a case of mistaken identity?   Does Saul actually have a son at all, or does the sight of the boy, who survives the gas chamber only to be murdered by a Nazi doctor, bring to the surface that human part of himself that he has been obliged to suppress?

Son of Saul  leaves these questions open.  Unlike Schindler’s List, it doesn’t have heroes, not even flawed heroes,  to give the viewer some emotional consolation or catharsis or a some sense of moral direction.   Nothing about Saul has any clarity at all.

There are no Spielbergesque tricks here to to thrill the audience, such as the utterly fake sequence in Schindler’s List where the women take a shower and scream with relief when it turns out not to be gas, no redemptive ending.  The film is told from the perspective of Saul himself – hauntingly portrayed by the Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig in a performance of mesmerising intensity.

Like his fellow-Sonderkommando, Saul is both an accomplice of mass murder and also a victim, trapped in a society in which all the normal constructs that make human society have disappeared; family, friendship, love, community, mercy, and decency.   Using his  obsessive and anomalous attempt to bury his son as a prism, Son  of Saul  casts a terrifying light on the industrialised killing machine created by the Nazis, in which the Sonderkommando work units are merely one component of a conveyor belt dedicated to the destruction of human beings, the theft of their property, and the removal and burning of their bodies.

Much of this is depicted as  a  blurred background,  using shallow focus camera work that concentrates on Saul himself.   We rarely see the faces of the victims or even their whole bodies.  Instead we see them as the Sonderkommando and the Nazis saw them – as an anonymous mass of faceless people fed through a factory-like production line, who no longer have any history, destiny or individuality, except to be killed.

Like Michael Haneke, Nemes uses sound to devastating effect, as the Sonderkommando perform their horrific tasks with manic speed against a constant background of screams, shouts, gunshots and barked orders in German.  Anymore than this and the film would probably be unwatchable, but these  techniques are not intended to soften the events the film depicts.

On the contrary, Son of Saul   forces its audience to see the process of mass killing through the eyes of the killers and accomplices, imagine once again how the Holocaust became possible.  In doing so, it triumphantly realizes Nemes’s stated aim to  tell ‘the story of the dead rather than the story of the survivors.’

It’s particularly striking that such a film should come from Hungary, a country whose wartime ruler Admiral Miklos Horthy was complicit in the deportation of some 424,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and who is currently undergoing something of a rehabilitation.

Hungary is also governed by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, one of whose co-founders, the  prominent commentator Zsolt Bayer,  once declared ‘A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence, They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.’

Son of Saul describes a moment in history when the Nazi tyranny once took a very similar view towards Jews and others.  Though the film concentrates very specifically on what  Nemes calls ‘the destruction of Jewish civilisation in Europe’, his statements in interviews make it very clear that he was concerned with other acts of genocide, and also with the genocidal impulse in our own time.  Not for nothing does Saul, a  Hungarian Jew, go by the very un-Hungarian surname Auslander – a German word meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘undesirable alien.’

In short, this is a major artistic statement about what one of the great crimes of history – the massacre of European Jewry, which offers a both a commemoration and a warning.  It is serious stuff, and a reminder that antisemitism is a serious issue – far too serious to be used to the Israel-firsters and rightwing bloggers stalking Facebook comments pages and Twitter in search of an incriminating thought or a word out of place that they can use for what are really quite base purposes.


Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button

I’m feeling very fortunate indeed indeed to have just caught Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s amazing movie The Pearl Button in its UK release.  I try and see as many films as I can every year, but Guzmán’s films are always something extra special.  For those who don’t know him, Guzmán is a documentary filmmaker who learned his craft at the Official School of Film in Spain – a school created by Franco to make Spain look good which ironically produced some of Spain’s greatest leftist directors such as Victor Erice, Juan Antonio Bardem and Pilar Miró.

Guzmán is also of the left.   He first became internationally known for his epic three-part account of the rise and fall of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity movement The Battle of Chile.  Now 74 years old, Guzmán has not followed the tedious trajectory from youthful leftwing activism into conservative ‘realism’, but his passionate concern with social justice is now only one component of a wider and more reflective artistic vision that has transformed him into one of the few genuine poets working in contemporary cinema.

To call Guzmán a documentary film-maker doesn’t even begin to describe what he does. He fuses together images of astounding power and beauty with words, introspective voiceovers, philosophical reflections and meditations, political observations, and brilliantly realized interviews to create films that linger on in the mind long after you’ve seen them.

His last offering Nostalgia for the Light was a hauntingly beautiful meditation on astronomy, the cosmos, history, memory, and the tragedy of the Chilean disappeared, all centred on Chile’s awesome Atacama desert.   Memory is an essential theme in Guzmán’s work.  It emerges in his films as a kind of connective tissue that binds the past to the present, different generations to their predecessors, and individuals to their wider community and to the earth itself.

Like Milan Kundera in a different context, his films are a way of combating political ‘forgetting’ and the power of dictatorships like Pinchet’s to wipe out the memory of their opponents, and the crimes that were committed to eliminate them.   Guzmán is also fascinated by landscape, and by the beguiling and unusual geography of his native Chile in particular, but his landscapes are also haunted landscapes, saturated with Chile’s tragic recent history.

All of these concerns are present in the icy and watery landscapes of Patagonia,  which provide the central stage and object of inquiry  The Pearl Button.  The film is partly a celebration of water – in rivers, seas, and ghostly Patagonia icescapes that echo nineteenth century visions of polar landscapes as the epitome of the sublime.  But Patagonia is also a landscape of genocide, colonial oppression and political murder.

Guzmán interviews surviving members of the indigenous Indian population that was wiped or suppressed during the expansion of Chile’s colonial frontier in the nineteenth century, and the military campaigns that made it possible.  He movingly celebrates the way of life that was lost by their incorporation into ‘civilization’, and their close relationship with the sea and the rivers that dissect Patagonia, which led some of them to undertake thousand mile journeys or round Cape Horn in wicker canoes.

A key thread in the film is the relationship between human beings and  landscape, and also the interaction between water and landscape and the physical transformations that result from it.  Some of the images in the film, such as an amazing sequence of a groaning, creaking cathedral of ice are simply breathtaking – and their power is enhanced by the slow dreamy music and seamless editing, and by the poetic reflections and insights that Guzmán’s delivers in his solemn, velvety voice.

Patagonia is also the place where the Pinochet dictatorship – like its counterpart in Argentina –  dropped the bodies of its victims into the ocean, sometimes tying them to train rails to make them sink. Guzmán retraces this awful history, and goes in search of traces of the victims, like a detective revisiting a crime scene in a cold case.

He meticulously reconstructs how they were killed.  He finds traces of these crimes in barnacle formations on rails brought up from the ocean.   He mourns the victims and indicts their perpetrators.  Through the power of his images and the poetic sensibility that he brings to bear on the Patagonian landscape and its history, he also makes his audience mourn these unknown victims.

Guzmán’s unflinching depiction of these cruelties is not simply the result of his concern with Chilean politics.  Some of the most powerful interview contributions to the film come from the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, a former prisoner of the Pinochet regime now suffering from Parkinsons, who says something to the effect that crimes such as the Chilean disappeared are crimes that the whole human family are responsible for, and which diminish all of us.

The same can be said of many of the horrific crimes that are currently taking place on a daily basis.   In this sense Guzmán’s Patagonia is a true mirror of what Gramsci called ‘this great and terrible world’, and despite the tragedies it describes,  it still manages to convince us that all is not lost, and that we remain part of a marvellous and magical planet that is still worth fighting for.


The Big Short

Broadly speaking,  there are three types of political or socially-engaged cinema within  Hollywood.  The first category belongs to movies in which the politics are implicit rather than overt, but can nevertheless be detected or interpreted in the underlying ideological, cultural or racial assumptions and priorities that determine plot structures and storylines, or the way that certain characters or groups of people are represented.  Within this category you could place most Westerns featuring Native Americans, not to mention a whole range of science fiction films such as Independence Day, Starship Troopers andAvatar.

In the second place and this category can sometimes overlap with the first there are films whose overall intention is entertainment, but which nevertheless incorporate ongoing political debates or social issues into their plotlines, and make more overt political statements or messages without departing from the conventions of their particular genre.  Here you can find a vast list of films such asMagnum Force, The Green Berets, The Deer Hunter, Top Gun, Apocalypse Now, State of Siege orDjango

My review of The Big Short for Ceasefire magazine.  You can read the rest here:

Cartel Land

I’m not sure if would recommend Matthew Heinemann’s dark and disturbing documentary Cartel Land, which I saw last night, because one thing you can say is that is not a pleasant or life-affirming evening at the movies.  But for those who believe that cinema should do more than entertain you or send you home with a warm glowing feeling, this is an unmissable and terrifying journey into the nightmare of violence and corruption that Mexico has become as a result of the cartels that feed America’s insatiable drug habit.

The film is on one level a study of the follies and moral ambiguities of vigilantism.  It traces the parallel stories of two vigilantes on each side of the border.  On the American side there is Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, former drug abuser and child abuse victim for whom the adjective ‘lived-in’ barely begins to describe the ravaged features and wounded eyes, as he stalks the Arizona border in military fatigues with a team of the spooky-looking military types who seem to abound in America.

Like many of the vigilante groups on the US-Mexico border, Foley began these patrols in an attempt to stop migrants from crossing the frontier, before focusing on the drug cartels instead.    Foley is a kind of Western hero-cum-Rambo, who sees himself as David versus the cartel Goliath and characterizes his self-appointed mission battling evil as an attempt to uphold law and order in a land where law has ceased to exist.

Apart from wandering around the desert with guns and walkie-talkies, it is not clear what Foley has actually achieved through these patrols.  The same cannot be said of the other subject of Heinemann ‘s film; Dr José Manuel Mireles Valverde, who formed an armed group called the Autodefensas in 2013 to take on the Knights Templar cartel in a series of townships in the state of Michoacán.

Valverde’s group appears to have initially been quite successful, driving the cartel out of a series of towns, and establishing itself as a parallel authority to rival the corrupt and inept police and army.  In one of the film’s many extraordinary scenes, he and his group are disarmed by the army, which is then driven away by the local population after handing back the confiscated weapons.

As the film progresses,  it becomes disturbingly clear that the Autodefensas are not the ‘good guys’, to say the least, and their relationship becomes increasingly strained, before the shocking revelations that I won’t reveal in case you see it.   Mireles himself is a tricky and bizarre character.  Courageous to the point of foolhardiness, he risks his life and nearly loses it in his battle against the cartels.

At the same time he is extraordinarily narcissistic, macho, and self-aggrandizing, and really quite astonishing in what he is prepared to reveal on camera.  At one point he tells his men, who have just captured a suspected narco ‘ get everything you can out of him and put him in the ground’, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that there could ever be any consequences for giving such an order.

Of course in Mexico there often aren’t any consequences for anything, and perhaps Mireles knows that.  Perhaps that is one reason why the Autodefensas begin to behave like a cartel, killing and torturing suspects, raiding and stealing from houses, before it becomes horrifically clear that they, the police, the local authorities and the Mexican government are playing a darker game than Walter White could ever have dreamed about.

Mireles describes his organization as a ‘social movement’, but civil society is clearly only peripherally involved in an armed movement which is too easily dominated by armed men with ambiguous agendas and unaccountable powers, and which offers no long term institutional or societal answers to the problems it was created to address.

These complex stories are brilliantly-told, without narration, in a film that relies heavily on  ‘cinematic’ techniques, from its haunting cinematography of a Cormac McCarthy-like Mexican border, to its night drives to places that few documentary filmmakers have ever visited, and chaotic and brutal raids and gunfights that Heinemann and his team can consider themselves lucky to have witnessed and lived to talk about.

These effects aren’t just gimmicks to ramp up the entertainment value. There is really nothing entertaining about this journey into the Mexican heart of darkness.  Heinemann’s film is on one level, a portrait of a particular society – Mexico – whose institutions have become completely co-opted and subjugated by the drug trade, and the violence and corruption that the trade engenders.  The result is a catastrophic systemic failure that is moral, political and social, and which  offers no easy or convenient solutions.

That failure is not unique to Mexico.  After all, the horrors of ‘Cartel Land’ have been repeated in other Latin American countries, and also in some American cities, in Naples and Palermo. The vast profits from the drug trade have been laundered into the international financial system, mixing ‘dirty’ with clean money to the point when it is difficult to know if anyone knows – or cares – what the difference is.

To some extent the drug trade is kind of hyper-capitalism, which as the Italian sociologist Pino Arlacchi once argued, echoes the early period that Marx identified as ‘primitive accumulation’, through raw violence, piracy and slavery.  But the world that Heinemann depicts is also a testament to the crazed greed that drives global capitalism; to the terrible futility of the drug war, with its concentration on supply rather than demand, which has boosted profits to the point when those who pursue them have absolutely no moral scruples about what they do to get them, and which feeds on the poverty of a country that borders the richest country on earth.

The result of all this is the dystopian society depicted in Cartel Land.  But whereas most dystopias take place in the near or far-distant future, this one is unfolding right now.