Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Month: April, 2016

Son of Saul

by Ben Diamond

son of saul

A reconstructed, blood-curdling scream – Son of Saul (Nemes 2015, 107m)

I’m not sure what there is to say after witnessing a day and a half in the life of Sonderkommando Saul Ausländer, prisoner of Auschwitz in 1944.  The choice to simply show, through the eyes of one man, what was happening, in real time, in Auschwitz, is a bold one.  ‘Hollywood Holocaust’ narratives – The Pianist, Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – look like they are portraying a whole different Holocaust compared to this.  Son of Saul is beholden to no-one and, as such, chooses to show, all around Saul, the sickening details that other films have turned their heads or shied away from.  Such is the freedom that has been granted to a director on his debut who, by all accounts, struggled to secure the funding needed for such a daring piece. The mounds of ashes being shovelled into the water, the bodies being dragged along the floors, the banging on the walls of the gas chambers.  All these and more are constants in the film, sickening realistic details that never simply fade into the background, no matter how repetitive. They never lose their power to shock.

Things are more complicated than a simple this-is-how-things-were account for two reasons.  Saul lives longer than most because he is a member of the Sonderkommando, the unit made up of Jewish inmates who assisted the Nazis in disposing of bodies after they had been gassed, before eventually being disposed of themselves.  So part of the complication of this film is that Saul is, in some way, a collaborator with the Nazis and a traitor of his own people.  But, for me, the more interesting, second complication, concerns the chain of events set in motion at the start of the film, where Saul spots his own son – still breathing – among the dead after the gas chamber doors have been re-opened for the Sonderkommando to remove all evidence of evil before the next group of Jews arrive.  The horrors of Auschwitz become secondary to his quest to give his son a proper burial, the camp being a nightmarish maze he must zigzag through in order to avoid his own demise, find a rabbi to say mourner’s kaddish with him, and lay his son to rest in the proper way.  Another prisoner accuses him at one point of prioritising the dead over the living, his desire for proper Jewish ceremony putting the prisoners’ plans for an uprising in jeopardy.

The film has interesting things to say about perspective, too.  There is a discord between the viewer’s experience and Saul’s experience.  The camera is almost always trained on Saul – he is usually either walking towards or away from the camera. Things happening in the background are simply that – things happening in the background.  Saul’s determination to give his son a proper Jewish burial is carried out with determination, and he is always purposefully doing something, never stumbling about aimlessly.  For the viewer, however, the experience is overwhelming, chaotic and confusing, even though Saul never has a moment where his resolve wavers.  We can’t know what he’s thinking, planning to do next, or even seeing.  This seems like a serious challenge to the idea that we can properly document or understand such dark periods of history.  We can only watch and try to interpret.  It is a rare beast where you have a strong understanding of a character’s motivation and at the same time a sense of utter bewilderment at what is going on.  There are definite parallels between the techniques used in Aleksei German’s fictitious Hard To Be a God – a similar case of a camera always in flight with terrible scenes constantly unfolding all around – and Son of Saul.

For the perpetrators, the logical extension of the telos of the Holocaust is the denial of the Holocaust after it has happened.  We witness this today.  This film is all about documenting, witnessing, remembering, in the face of forgetting.  This is the power of film – to show the impossible. Because no such videos exist of the actual atrocities.  Part of Son of Saul shows the struggle to document the horrors of Auschwitz as one inmate tries to covertly take pictures of the extermination taking place, and another hides his writings.  The Nazis also tried to exterminate the Sonderkommando.  So this film serves the dual function of documenting of how memories were erased, as well as trying to reconstruct some of that memory.  Auschwitz, of course, became the focal point of post-Holocaust memory because it was both a work camp and an extermination camp, leading to many survivors’ testimonies.

The most horrifying scene in 12 Years a Slave, another film about parts of our recent past that some would rather forget, shows the lynching of a man, low enough so that if he just stands on the tips of his toes, he can breathe.  And he struggles on for an excruciating length of time, the camera static.  The big personal revelation for me after seeing that was that I only remembered this scene again a few days after I’d seen the film – I had erased the most shocking part from my memory, pretty much as soon as I had witnessed it.  As the atrocities pile up in Son of Saul, you feel that director László Nemes has tried to construct such an unblinking portrait that it is simply impossible to forget.

Other Holocaust-related writings from this blog:

Night Will Fall

No Home Movie

See also: Martin Amis’s book, The Zone of Interest, in part told from the perspective of a Sonderkommando.

Sex Lives of the Potato Men

by Ben Diamond

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 17.18.04

“Vegas and Crook are a sleazy dream-team and brilliantly cast as the soft-core spud men… After several pints and a curry it could be the lads’ film of the year.”

-Mark Adams, The Sunday Mirror, 22nd February 2004

“Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival”

-Extract from Mark Adams’s Twitter bio

Where were you when you first watched Sex Lives of the Potato Men?

(Subtext: I am ashamed that the review of this film exists alongside my review of Son of Saul).

You can’t spend your life watching great films.

Sometimes you have to ground yourself.  Remind yourself why it is that great films are great.  Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?  If you went to see something as good as Barton Fink every week at North Finchley Vue then the spectacle would fail to astound after a while.

And so it was that I found myself in a living room in Sunderland watching Sex Lives of the Potato Men.

I remember seeing posters for this on buses when it came out.  I remember seeing Mackenzie Crook up on that poster, and the Office connection made me want to see it.  But unfortunately I was 13 years old for most of 2004.  Now I’m a big boy – 25 years old – so I allowed myself the indulgence of checking out a film that was notoriously bad.  There was a special aura of badness surrounding this film, folkloric tales of a 0% rating on RottenTomatoes, outrage at the million pounds of public funds from the UK Film Council used to make this film.

I didn’t find it to be as nasty and misogynistic as some critics made out.  I didn’t even find it so terrible, so awful, such a heinous crime of cinematic attrition.  I even laughed a few times.  Yes, it’s abysmal.  But so is loads of stuff.  It held my attention more than recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, which tried to occupy the centre ground between thriller and procedural and ended up being neither, essentially a montage of interviews with victims of abuse masquerading as a testament to the selfless heroics of investigative journalism.  The Wire Season 5 it weren’t.

Four thoughts on Sex Lives of the Potato Men, or as it was called in France, La Vie de l’Homme de Pomme de Terre.

  1. Sometimes it’s easier to write about a bad film than a good film.
  2. Someone had to write this film.  It came out of someone’s head.  I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the psychotherapy sessions this bloke has been to.  And if he hasn’t, he really needs a few sessions.  Someone had to think of the idea that a man used to spread strawberry jam on his other half’s pudenda before he performed cunnilingus.  Someone then had to think of the idea that he missed the taste of such an experience so much that he had to start eating strawberry jam and fish-paste sandwiches to replicate the taste.  It’s like Proust’s madeleines but with a subtle hint of fanny juice.  Either the man who wrote this is a genius or needs to be in Broadmoor.  Some of the conversations in this film are so dead-end and nonsensical that they almost (almost) come full-circle and turn into a brilliant Kafka-esque satire on the banalities of modern discourse, each conversation simply a compendium of phatic utterances.
  3. In a way, this feels like a precursor to the era of Inbetweeners-style humour. Crucially, Vegas and Crook are total losers and their sex lives are shit, so they are playing underdogs.  But the tone of the film is so off, so wrong, that the fine-tuned charm of the Inbetweeners is instead bludgeoned to death.  Maybe Sex Lives of the Potato Men had to be slain on the altar of comedy for better things to come after it.
  4. Some scenes, concepts, dialogue in the film are genuinely disturbing.  And this irritates me.  Because I’ve watched Rome, Open City.  I’ve seen Fitzcarraldo.  I recently sat through the entirety of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.  I’ve watched the greats, kids.  And I can barely remember anything from any of them.  And I can remember loads from Sex Lives of the Potato Men.  In excruciating detail.  Like the scene pictured at the top of this article, where one character opens a door at an orgy and, in a break from the reality of the rest of the film, strolls through a neon-lit avenue of obscenities – ‘piss flaps’, ‘beef curtains’, even – and we’re talking the height of eroticism here – ‘fingering’.  Fingering.  The holy grail.  And my point here is that these neon signs are now forever burned into my mind’s eye. This film, in its shittiness, has made more of an impression on me than most of the greats.  And that has disturbing implications for art. Great art and bad art.  And how the void left by bad art is the thing that is left when the good art that you actually had to think about evaporates from your short term memory.  And if bad art leaves the strongest impression, then ad execs know, by extension, that if they throw enough shit at you, literally and metaphorically, at least some of it will stick.

Sandwiches, anyone?