Fury (2014)

David Ayer’s Second World War film has a dose of the infernal as it shows what has usually gone unsaid: good guys also have to kill.

fury-david-ayerUSA
3.5*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 135 minutes

When the Allied forces disembarked on the shores of Normandy, Dante’s famous sign at the gates of hell should have informed them what they were up against: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Of course, in the end, they prevailed against Hitler, Mussolini and their troops, and the heroism of the soldiers and their actions during the Second World War still make grown men cry. But as much as war is about conquest and defeat, the fights that have to be fought lead to death, and it is not only when you have killed hundreds or even dozens of people that you change, but when you have killed a single one.

Every time there is a war, this realisation has to dawn on soldiers, and the moment when war becomes real is when you aim your pistol and pull the trigger at someone whose ideology differs from yours but who has not tried to kill you. In David Ayer’s Fury, war is a painfully miserable experience for the viewer, because it so clearly turns people into bloodthirsty animals, often against their will. It tells the story of five men, huddled inside a tank named “Fury”, who do their best to survive, despite the odds, as they proceed across the German countryside and make their way towards Berlin in the waning days of the war.

Despite the green fields, sometimes decked with light snow, we get the impression throughout that the U.S. troops are crossing the valley of the shadow of death, and there is indeed evil to fear, because anything from a landmine to a brush-covered sniper can flip someone’s life switch in a matter of seconds. In the dark but meaningful opening scene, we get a very good sense of just how fragile life can be.

The film’s opening scene goes from ominous to gory to utterly bleak as someone we can’t see approaches on horseback, only to be stabbed through the eye, the blade presumably sinking deep into the skull, and dying instantly. The guy who did the stabbing is played by Brad Pitt, and he is in charge of a band of brothers during the Second World War who want to kill as many Nazis as they can as fast as they can so that they can go home and forget about all the people they killed. It is a vicious circle from which they can’t escape.

That opener, in which we are utterly unsure at first whether to cheer for the stabber or feel bad for the stabbee, shows this violence between individuals we don’t know, and who in all likelihood don’t know each other. It is a kind of violence of which this film is powerful but ultimately a pale representation of the large-scale moral carnage that occurs during wartime.

The main meat of the story does not involve the five soldiers as much as it focuses on the very quick growing up the newest addition to the group, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), has to do not. Not only does he have to stand his man and fit in but also survive in this environment of threats that are as constant as they are imminent.

Besides Pitt’s Sergeant Collier, the others in the group are as varied as one can expect: There is the silent, serious and very subdued Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who cites Scripture when need be, and these guys need it very often; the hedonist Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) who has clearly been fighting too long; and the Spanish-speaking Trini “Gordo” García (Michael Peña).

Ellison goes through the predictable trajectory from refusing to shoot anyone (before his transfer to the battlefield, he used to be a clerk, and he prides himself on typing 60 words per minute) to shooting like his life depended on it, and often it does, earning him the nom de guerre “[killing] Machine”.

But it is not all moonlight and roses, and Ayer takes pains to point out the moral minefield these characters have to navigate as they commit atrocious acts so that good may triumph in the end. At one point, we realise even Sergeant Collier might not be above taking an innocent German girl by force if given half a chance.

Because of his age, his lack of experience and his much less violent worldview, Ellison does not seem to fit in with these men, and neither does the audience, but over time we get to see the humanity in each of the characters, albeit often buried beneath a layer of denial for the sake of survival.

The film itself is an odd creature: While the characters get a somber dose of humanity and texture, the story is aimless, and there is no clear goal. We know the war is winding down, but by the end of the film, we are still stuck somewhere in the German countryside with only tiny triumphs and defeats having been racked up along the way, including an unforgettable scene that involves the Nazis’ feared Tiger tank.

The acting is superb, and it is particularly inspiring to see the greatness that lies within LaBeouf when he represses his emotions. But despite its historical accuracy, the “tracers” that light up one battle scene are more reminiscent of a Star Wars battle, complete with what looks like green and red lasers on the battlefield, than a 1945 shoot-out in the real world. Ayer should have found another way to make this scene palatable to an audience not at all used to such visuals in a realistic setting.

While the story may be thin, we leave the cinema utterly drained because of an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and a realisation that even the good guys do terrible things so that their side can win. Soldiers are human, and in situations as primal as warfare, they are reduced to their most basic instincts, and for all the honour and glory we bestow on them when they return home, many of us probably would not want to know what they did so that the rest of us may carry on.

With a Little Patience (2007)

With its focus on the point of view of a single character, With a Little Patience anticipates the thematic and visual concerns of its director’s feature film début by eight years.

with-a-little-patience-turelemHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes

Screenwriters:
László Nemes

Timea Varkonyi
Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 11 minutes

Original title: Türelem

László Nemes should be the only director ever allowed to tell stories of the Holocaust. Just like his feature film début, Son of Saul, released in 2015, his first short film shot in 35mm, With a Little Patience, made eight years earlier, is remarkably intense in its focus on a single character within the context of Jewish extermination during the Second World War. In this wordless, 11-minute film consisting of a single take, an anonymous office worker first appears to us when she emerges from soft focus, just as Saul Kaminski does in the opening seconds of Son of Saul.

An epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically the poem’s curtain-raising “Burial of the Dead” section, figures on a black screen even before the first image: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Öd’ und leer das Meer.” These lines perfectly frame the misery and desperation that follow shortly afterwards.

Although the office worker appears in the frame almost immediately when the film opens, the first object that is in focus is the object handed to her by an unknown individual: a brooch. It takes some time before we come to realise the significance of this piece of jewellery, and in the interim, the silence takes on an air of mystery and tension that finally breaks with tremendous force, even from far away, in the closing moments.

As the narrative unspools, a nagging sense of misfortune hangs in the air, created in large part by the dark interior where most of the film is set. The setting is nondescript. The space is clearly an office of some sort, but the anonymous woman whom we follow for most of the film does not speak to anyone, and the only words spoken to her are a whisper, their meaning unknown to us. Furthermore, as Nemes would do again in Son of Saul, the focus is so shallow that the actions of all except this woman are presented as nebulous blurs of movement.

Very little happens, although it is obvious the woman is hiding something, and all along, we wonder, “Where did this brooch come from, and why is she clearly not supposed to have it?”

It is only at the very end – when the camera’s perspective changes, and in an unfortunate moment of directorial timidity, we leave the confines of the main character as the focus is racked to show events much farther away – that we grasp the spatio-temporal context of the film: a death camp somewhere on Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War. The brooch is one of the pieces of jewellery that belonged to a Jewish prisoner, and this woman dressed in white, calmly and expressionlessly doing clerical work amid the grotesque carnage occurring just offscreen, is materially benefitting in her own small way from the subjugation, incarceration and liquidation of the Jews.

But this is but one interpretation.

While some may whimsically use the title to describe the lack of any robust dramatic development during the first two-thirds, this considerable part of the film actually works to heighten the impact of the final revelation on the viewer. By the time the chilling closing minutes roll around, the sudden shift in tone produces a visceral kick to the gut.

In With a Little Patience, Nemes offers a clear vision of his cinematic principles and a firm foundation on which he would ultimately go on to build the modern-day masterpiece that is Son of Saul. Tipping his hat to masters of the art form that include Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, Nemes uses a carefully choreographed single take to exquisite effect and proves his is a voice that will reverberate through the industry in the years to come.

Son of Saul (2015)

Tight focus, searing details and a wholly original approach combine to produce one of most powerful Holocaust films of all time in this début feature film of László Nemes.

son-of-saul-fiaHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes 
Screenwriters:
László Nemes 
Clara Royer

Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Saul fia

The world didn’t know it needed another Holocaust drama until Son of Saul (Saul fia) came along. Focused on one lone protagonist – the titular Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian – for its running time by blocking out almost everything around him through shallow focus and an aspect ratio that is close to a square, the film is 105 minutes of pure immersion in the tension that pervades a concentration camp (press materials state it is Auschwitz, but this is not evident to the outsider) towards the end of the Second World War.

The opening is breathtaking, as Saul approaches us in a blurred shot of a forest landscape until his face appears in a sharp close-up. For the next few minutes, we follow him, swinging from the front to the back, over his shoulders, as a train arrives, and the latest group of Jewish prisoners offload their belongings and make their way into the camp. His face does not betray a single emotion. However long he has been here, he has been hardened by his experience, and he goes about a range of unthinkable duties with the robotic dedication of a drone. And yet, there are signs that underneath the surface, he is fully aware of the savagery all around him.

In one of the film’s first scenes, we see a group of prisoners, likely the ones who arrived in the opening scene, led to the showers. Saul, wearing a coat with giant red X on the back, which means he belongs to the exclusive Sonderkommando burdened with cleaning the gas chambers after executions have taken place, among other ghastly chores, stands to one side. We see the doors closing, and soon the screaming starts. The screams become shrieks, and the shrieks turn to wails, before silence announces death. When the doors open, the bodies are dragged outside, and the victims’ clothes, neatly hung in the cloakroom, are ransacked for anything that glitters. Saul covers his nose and mouth with a thin piece of cloth to ward off the stench of the deceased.

But there is a slight groaning among the heap of corpses, and it belongs to a young boy. The doctor examines him, listens to his wheezing chest, and then grabs his head, closes his nasal passages and puts a hand over his mouth. Within seconds, the boy stops breathing. Saul sees all of this, and inside him something breaks. He desperately looks for any identification among the pile of clothes, but he finds none. Later, he asks the doctor not to dispose of the body after the autopsy.

Despite Saul’s lack of visible emotion, we learn over time that the boy is his son, or that he thinks the boy is his son. This piece of information seems utterly far-fetched, not only because the boy was serendipitously the only survivor from the group but also because the group of prisoners did not even come from Hungary. Nonetheless, Saul is determined that the boy be given a proper Jewish burial, and he spends the rest of the film trying to track down a rabbi who would say Kaddish, a prayer in honour of the dead.

Many of the scenes consist of a single take, or what feels like a single take. It bears mentioning at this point that this is director László Nemes’s début feature – a fact that seems astounding, given the obvious challenges of choreographing the actors as well as the camera as they move through a variety of spaces. Nemes’s experience with film does include, however, a stint as assistant director on The Man from London (A londoni férfi) by Béla Tarr, famous for his use of long takes.

This approach to his story is tremendously effective, and even though some of the takes include long stretches without dialogue, there is not a single dull moment in the entire film. On the contrary, the viewer becomes more and more tense as the story continues to develop. Nemes accomplishes this task by focusing on the details without showing them explicitly. The tight locus that is Saul is the point from which we glimpse the chaos around him, and while there are no real establishing shots anywhere in the film, it is clear this is hell on earth.

From piles of ash (cremated bodies) being shovelled into a lake to prisoners lining up next to a pit to be shot point-blank the one after the other, the things we see here – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly – are gruesome and will haunt many a viewer. And yet, the filmmaker never goes for spectacle, because the brief events here are always extensions of the horror that is all around Saul, and by their presence they help us to comprehend what it is from which he seeks to escape.

Son of Saul is a tour de force like few others. It keeps the viewer guessing, not only about the trajectory but about the nature of the chaos taking place in front of our very eyes, and is without question a Holocaust film that ranks among the very best ever made.

Viewed at the 2015 San Sebastián International Film Festival