This was a video that we watched at home on the television. It very like a TV Movie; low budget; all interiors; unambitious. It has an Oscar-winning main performance from Julianne Moore who is surely America’s greatest actress at the moment. I thought she was amazing as Sarah Palin, as I noted on the blog a few months ago. Apparently it was made in only twenty-three days on such a tight budget that the actors worked for union rates. It shows.
It is about a clever lady [Moore] who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the film she is only fifty. The majority of people who are unlucky enough to get Alzheimers are in their seventies and eighties but it wouldn’t make cinematic sense to cast the great Julianne Moore as an eighty-year old, or write a book about an eighty year old [its all based on a best-selling novel]. You would lose what little audience you might get at the first hurdle. Nobody cares. An audience might care about the tragedy of a fifty-year old college professor and her rapid decline into a ghost. And that’s how it’s played. Pretty much constructed as a tear-jerker.
The only person I have known well to have Alzheimer’s was Auntie Eileen and she was a lot worse than what we are shown here. She was a remarkably sociable, incredibly gregarious and happy woman and her decline was all the more tragic and terrible for that. She didn’t recognise her own children or husband and by the end became unmanageable. She definitely was not Still Eileen. What a terrible ending to the loving marriage they had enjoyed.
It is poignant but focuses almost entirely on the family. I would have liked a bit more of the real Julianne Moore character, seen her at work, with girl-friends and colleagues [not the usual theatrical dinner-party device we so often see] before she gets ill. So that we could understand more of how she used to be. I guess there was no budget for that.
One last thing: the music is terrible.
SON OF SAUL
This is a Hungarian film set in Auchwitz in 1944 when the German efforts at erasing Jews from Europe were at their peak; at one point we overhear the camp commander tell one of his men that there will be three thousand new arrivals that night. Too many for the ovens and they will have to use the pits.
It won an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film and the Grand Prix of the Jury at Cannes, no mean feat for a first-time director. He was on the Film Programme on BBC4 last week explaining how it took him years to get it funded. The interviewer asked him if he had tried to get money in Israel and he shrugged and said, ‘They didn’t like the script’. He should have showed them the searing three minute hand-held sequence in the Coal Room.
It is incredible. As I have posted many times on here, I take great pains not to expose myself to mans inhumanity to man and in every way, this is a film about mans inhumanity to man. But in the end my interest in contemporary cinema has overridden my what? . . . my qualms about the subject matter. The opening scene is the actual gas chamber; it never flinches, ‘Remember your peg number’, as they are locked into the showers and we stay with the men, the Sonderkommando and see their impassive faces as we hear the prisoners being gassed, hammering on the walls and the doors to be let out.
There is a story as such but it is thin. The main protagonist, Saul one of the Sonderkommando finds a dead boy and claims he is his son and spends the entire time trying to give him a Jewish burial. This is a device that allows Saul to visit all the different parts of the camp and allows we the audience to see every horror. We are spared nothing. The ovens, the pits, the trains, all in a very intelligently done soft-focus background while the camera never moves from the visceral immediacy of Saul’s face in close-up. Saul burning bodies; Saul at the pits; Saul snatching a moment to eat gruel; Saul sorting through the discarded possessions; Saul in the Coal Room. The sound is just astounding, loud and clanky, emphasising how industrial the process was; one of the prizes it won at Cannes was for sound.
However, the device of the deceased son allows us also to be interested in this chink of humanity in a grotesque world of death; if it were all relentlessly horrific, we would simply disengage.
Just a couple of other points: the men, the Sonderkommando are utterly brutal and structurally it reminded me of other prison films and prison books and in some ways films about men at war or in the cauldron of battle, where survival is the only thing that matters. The subtitles are pretty hopeless and given the care the director has put into everything else, it is forgivable and I suppose they aren’t the most important thing. As a picture of a life lived a nanosecond away from death . . . for everyone . . . not just the prisoners, life isn’t just cheap, it has no value whatsoever one tiny mistake and you can be shot or clubbed to death, it is gripping beyond words. I must admit I thought that everything that could be said about the Holocaust in cinematic terms had been said but this single-minded film proves otherwise.