Films about the holocaust face a dilemma – the demands of the subject matter are not necessarily compatible with the semantics of cinema. The subject requires an absolute desire to portray truth, for us to bear witness. But the structure of a two hour movie calls for a narrative arc, dramatic tension, some fudging of the truth for the sake of the story. In addressing this dilemma film-makers are forced to be inventive in their approach. This can involve telling a story around the death camps but not located in them (Schindler’s List), adding a fictional character to be our representative (The Boy is Striped Pyjamas), even attempting (largely unsuccessfully) dark comedy (Life is Beautiful), or the courtroom approach (lots of them).
A cinematic problem of portraying the heart of darkness, life in Auschwitz itself, is that the camp was designed to strip any light and shade from the daily lives of the inmates. The unrelenting grimness of lie there was part of the industrial process designed to strip people of their humanity. Hope, romance, action, drama – all the staples of a movie plot were deliberately removed from the inmate’s experience because these are emotions that make us human, and the aim is to explicitly remove any such hooks. Making a film from this perspective gets to the heart of the dilemma – how to be truthful and yet also make a film that engages. László Nemes’s film doesn’t try to shy away from this central tension. The technique faces it full on by taking the viewer directly into the camp. The camera is rarely two foot from Géza Röhrig’s Saul, often following behind his shoulder. This gives it an immersive game, found footage quality, we are placed directly in the action.
Saul is one of the Sonderkommando, the inmates who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria. Kept apart from the other inmates, the Sonderkommando themselves were executed after a few months and replaced. Saul operates quietly, efficiently, with the bowed head, don’t draw attention to yourself stance that Primo Levi describes in If This Is A Man. The storyline as it is involves a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber, and then dies. Saul believes him to be his son, and wants to give him a proper burial, and not be subject to autopsy. This plot device allows us to follow Saul through different parts of the camp, as he seeks a rabbi and a means of burial.
The plot makes some overtures about the need to find some act of morality in an immoral place. But it is not really the focus of the movie. Intriguingly the focus is the out of focus action. While the camera is locked on the quiet pathos in Saul’s face, the detail is in the bokeh behind him. Blurred figures haul bodies, shoot inmates, strip possessions. It seems to say that even a film that wants to face the subject directly is forced to gaze indirectly.
British cinema has these based on fact feel-good movies down pat. We probably get the mixture of comedy, pathos and drama better than anyone, they are emotional without being overly schmaltzy and funny without being an unrealistic gag-fest. Pride, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty – working class tales of overcoming the odds, usually against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain (in this Thatcher has been a surprising boon for the UK film industry). Eddie the Eagle sits comfortably in this canon – after last year’s excellent turn in Kingsman, Taron Egerton again impresses as Eddie Edwards.
I have mixed feelings about these films. I’m scornful of them beforehand, a bit cynical afterwards, and enjoy them immensely during. I get that additional sense of emotion at altitude, which Mayo and Kermode have dubbed Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome, so when I saw Pride on a recent flight I was an embarrassing blubbing mess. I’m glad I saw this at sea level. While the film handles all the elements deftly and delivers just as you’d want it to, I’m still left unsatisfied. I suspect I may not be a feel-good kinda person. In the end these films remind me of those inspirational quotes people like to pass around on Twitter (“Never give up”, “Failure is the first step to success”, etc) – you get the value of them, and some of them are carefully constructed and inspiring. But you want a bit more depth or shade in your life than a simple slogan. But, hey we live in a world where Donald Trump is a reality, so a film that can make you smile and feel good about fellow humans for a while is no bad thing.
Eye in the Sky is a thriller that uses the Islamic extremism in Kenya as the basis for a taut, almost unbearably tense plot involving drones, local military and UK and US governments in the way the Cold War used to be an effective context. The film’s ability to make us see the reality of such conflicts and understand what ‘collateral damage’ really means in terms of people may gain some attention, but decision making is the real star of the film. In the same way The Martian was really about putting problem solving in a cinematic context, so Eye in the Sky is focused on getting us under the skin of how decisions are made in complicated environments when there is no good decision. MBA students should study this film as a group exercise.
What the film manages to convey is a sense of authenticity across all of the characters. There is no binary here, people may be operating at different places along the Hawks-Doves spectrum, even Mirren’s Hawkish Colonel is has a sense of what she believes to be the most humane decision that we can empathise with.
The last half of the film is effectively an extended adaptation on the moral dilemma: behind one door are 100 people, behind the other is your child. You can only open one door to save those behind it, which do you open? So few films go anywhere near this kind of moral complexity that it makes you realise just how rare this is. Combined with the realistic portrayal of characters throughout the different networks and you wonder why we put up with such cliched and one dimensional depictions in other thrillers. After the MBA students have finished with the film, students studying utilitarianism in moral philosophy should have a go.
If my pitch that this is a cinematic stab at John Stuart Mill hasn’t convinced you that it’s worth a watch, then I offer these two reasons also:
1) It contains the tensest bread buying sequence in cinematic history
2) It features a fitting last performance from Alan Rickman.
3) It is just over 90 minutes long. When Batman vs Superman: Who Gives a Shit and Captain America: There isn’t Really a Conflict both come in around a flabby 2.5 hours, it is refreshing to see you can get this much done in a reasonable time length.