Son of Saul
What is it about the Holocaust that, over 70 years after its termination, it continues to draw the attention of so many writers and filmmakers around the world as a subject for exploration? I believe it’s because we have a fear, a profound and a terrifying one, that it will eventually be forgotten and slip away from the collective consciousness.
Son of Saul examines this fear in great detail: how do we preserve, for all eternity, the memory of those who have died? Is it even possible? This is explored through the narrative of a Sonderkommando (the name given to a prisoner who was granted an extra few months of life in order to aid and dispose of the gas chamber victims) who, with a grim determination that begins to look increasingly insane as the film progresses, seeks to perform a religious ceremony and burial for his illegitimate son.
This obsession with the commemoration of his child reflects our own culture’s persistence in keeping one of the most heinous crimes in history from being forgotten. The collective instinct of society’s, to give this unimaginable event some meaning, can be seen in the Holocaust’s extensive coverage in schools, the compulsory concentration camp visits in Germany, and of course films such as Schindler’s List. Director László Nemes is clearly uncertain as to whether this eternal commemoration can be achieved; he shows that the rest of the camp members are, understandably, more concerned with survival than they are with preserving the memory of the dead, as we all are in our daily lives.
Any realist can recognise that no one person, and no one crime, is going to be remembered forever, given the vastness of history and the fleeting nature of human memory. The attempt is ultimately futile, and perhaps we should focus all our energy on resolving the current injustices in the world. But the film’s very existence shows that Nemes believes that our determination to remember the dead is worthwhile. He finds a heroism in Saul’s dogged pursuit of a proper burial for his son that is curiously uplifting, given the appalling context of the setting.
Nemes is not just interested in memorialising the victims of the Holocaust, he is also concerned with how they are memorialised. The film’s construction is entirely set up as a retaliation against the sentimentalisation of the subject in previous films. The unspeakable crimes we have grown accustomed to being shown in the cinema here take place on the peripheral edges of the screen, often completely out of focus, with the camera glued to Saul’s face in long tracking shots which prioritise the plight of the individual over the mass because it knows that the latter is impossible to portray. Similarly, the lack of a musical score is a key decision in trying to deliberately avoid exploiting the audience’s emotions: this is the reality, it is saying, and if you are human then you will be moved by it.
Except that the film is not quite successful in adhering to reality and avoiding manipulation; towards the end, as Saul’s quest grows ever more fraught with danger, it is guilty of using the terrifying reality of Auschwitz as a tool to build narrative tension in much the same way as Spielberg did in Schindler’s List, a film which Nemes is supposedly adverse to. That smacks just a little of hypocrisy, and prevents the film from attaining its intended status as one of the all-time greats. Still, for the most part it is a work of great subtlety, and its fight to preserve the memory of those lost in the Holocaust, despite recognising the ultimate futility of this mission, is an incredibly empowering lost cause.
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
It’s about time we faced up to the truth: Radiohead are terrible lyricists. Sadly, like too many art-rock bands, they aspire to reveal a poetic truth about humankind but lack the discipline to begin to work out what that might be. Instead they resort to lazy slogans such as: ‘Bring down the government… They don’t speak for us’. Or, as they announce in one pearl of wisdom from this latest album: ‘The numbers don’t decide/Your system is a lie’. Fine, but how is it a lie? Why does the government not speak for us, and what can be done about it?
Thom Yorke likes to deal in vagaries rather than specifics: most fans would claim that this is his artistic imperative and is because he would like to leave his words open to interpretation. But I strongly suspect that it’s because he lacks any real insight into the corruption of the so-called ‘system’. When Radiohead threatens the establishment it doesn’t even seem to notice (David Cameron once named ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ as one of his favourite songs). They don’t need to be afraid; Yorke’s ignorant, juvenile jibes are no threat to them. In fact, they might even sing along.
I’m being harsh because too many people take the band’s lyrics seriously, when they should be focussed on the far greater significance of the music. OK Computer was fatuous in its repetition of post-modernist clichés regarding technology, but truly remarkable in its fusion of electronica and rock: see for example the digitalised beauty of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and the disturbingly epic crescendo of ‘Exit Music’. Kid A and Amnesiac were utterly clueless as attempts to expand thematically into more overt political statements, but musically they were very focussed in their decision to travel further down the electronic wormhole.
A Moon Shaped Pool is not quite as successful as the albums aforementioned, but its subtle orchestrations and acoustic instrumentation help to give it a unique texture. There are some stunning achievements: ‘Burn the Witch’ and its aggressive strings section is one of their most powerful moments, ‘Decks Dark’ shifts between its segmented motifs with a grace reminiscent of ‘Paranoid Android’, and ‘Identikit’ has a refreshingly unironic choir and 80s synth interlude. Don’t let the hyperbolic reaction of the press fool you: this is no masterpiece, and many of the longer tracks such as ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Ful Stop’ drift aimlessly away into the vapidity of their own concepts.
But then suddenly, at the end, comes the unexpected: a track that has something interesting to say not just musically but lyrically. ‘True Love Waits’ was written in 1995, but it is certainly no coincidence that it has finally emerged on record shortly after Thom Yorke’s divorce from his wife of 23 years. The opening couplet ‘I’ll drown my beliefs/To have your babies’ sounds more desperate than ever considering the circumstances, and is such a succinct summary of how love can be powerful enough to make one abandon personal morality that I can almost forgive the revelation later on that ‘true love lives/On lollipops and crisps’. Overall, the song is a rare insight into Yorke’s emotional core, which is too often shrouded behind deliberate affectations of opacity. Several times his vocals crack, faltering with emotion, and the final plea to ‘Just don’t leave/Don’t leave’ is utterly heartbreaking. A great and a perfectly timed moment: on the 100th chronological track in their studio discography, Radiohead finally manage to unite the majesty of their music to a compelling lyrical vision.