Non-Christmassy Christmas movies. Films reviewed: Son of Saul, The Hateful Eight
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Merry Christmas! You’re probably drinking a hot toddy or roasting chestnuts on an open fire somewhere. But this week I want to talk about movies opening today that don’t fit the usual Christmas mould. There’s an American western about eight people in a cabin in a blizzard who want to live to see the sun rise; and a Hungarian drama about a man in a Nazi concentration camp who wants to live to see his son buried.
Son of Saul
Dir: Laszlo Nemes
It’s 1944, WWII, inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner there. He is one of the SonderKommando, who are kept alive and given certain privileges because of their duties. The Sonderkommando handle the gristliest part of the death apparatus. They tell the newly-arrived prisoners to undress, ushers them into the tiled shower room and locks the doors. The showers are actually gas chambers — that’s where they kill them. Afterwards he unlocks the metal doors again and clears away the dead bodies to be burned. He does this over and over, never seeing the light of day. He is dead inside, just like the bodies he drags away.
At the same time, some of the prisoners are planning an elaborate scheme to photograph the mass murder. Others are planning to escape, to show the photos to the outside world. Then something unusual happens. Cleaning up the gas chamber, he notices a young man, gasping for breath, but somehow still alive amidst all the dead bodies. It’s like a miracle. Then Saul looks at him: that’s my son.
The Nazi’s quickly put a stop this. They strangle the boy and send him to the morgue for an autopsy to determine “what went wrong”. But for Saul, his life suddenly has a purpose. He, a man with no religious upbringing and no family, now is determined to give the boy a proper burial amidst all the mass killing. It’s an impossible mission. He somehow has to rescue the body, wrap it in a shroud, hide him from the Nazis, find a place to bury him and a holy man, a rabbi, to say the proper prayers.
Son of Saul is an intensely moving, high- tension drama. It somehow captures – without comment — the chaos, mayhem and absurdity of a Nazi concentration camp, with its omnipresent death, pain and humiliation.
It’s shot with a handheld camera that follows him, non-stop as he walks around the camp. (Sonderkommandos wear a special uniform that lets them move around the camp.) The action never ceases, from start to finish, constantly on the move adding high stress to the unceasing horror of the film.
It also has an immediacy missing from most Holocaust movies (if there is such a genre). It feels like you are there, following his every step. Also unusual is powerful Christian images of the film, such as Saul holding his blameless son in his arms, like Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Son of Saul is an excellent, if harrowing, movie. And it has a good chance of winning the Oscar for best foreign language feature.
The Hateful Eight
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a uniformed military officer walking on the Overland Trail in Wyoming after the US Civil War. He flags down a stage coach and asks for a ride before a blizzard hits. The reluctant passenger, John “the hangman” Ruth (played by a hefty Kurt Russell), doesn’t want anyone on board. He’s taking a woman wanted for murder to be hanged in Red Rock, and collecting the 10,000 bucks. But he relents when he recognizes the Major – they met once before, and Ruth was impressed to see a black man carrying a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln himself. And, it turns out, there once was a very high bounty on the Major’s head. The prisoner is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a foul-mouthed murderess with a black eye. She is handcuffed to John Ruth who will only give her up to the to the Sheriff of Red Rock. Warren is also a bounty hunter and carries the bodies of outlaws he wants to give to sherriff. And who do they meet next? Why Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a notorious southern renegade from the war, who claims to be… the newly-appointed Sherriff of Red Rock! But can he – or any of them – be trusted? Or do they all just want to claim the reward or to free the prisoner.
The snow falls harder till they reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, an inn on the trail. Inside are four unfamiliar men: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) a fancy-talking English hangman, General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Kentucky Fried confederate racist; Joe Gage, a cow-puncher wearing suspiciously clean duds (Michael Madsen) and Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), an unknown man who says he’s filling in for Minnie.
Each of the eight is filled with racist bile, hidden secrets, and countless skeletons in their respective closets. Which of them are the good guys and which are the bad guys. And will any of the hateful eight survive till morning?
I enjoyed this movie, though it’s not for everyone. It’s three hours long, and made in the old style, complete with an overture, an intermission, and a soundtrack by the king of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Moricone. And it’s being shown on 70mm film in Panavision. Super wide screen. And while technically a Western, the story is more like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery: who can be trusted and who is a secret killer? The film gives what we expect from Tarantino: flawless recreations of the look and feel of old movies, extreme violence, and stretching the boundaries of what people will allow on the screen. All of the characters are amazing, especially Goggins as the Sherriff and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the foul mouthed woman. I never felt bored.
But it does leave me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. For one, the only black and female characters are constantly called the B word and the N word. Second, for a western there are virtually no fist fights – lots of shooting but not much punching. The exception is Daisy. She starts out with a black eye, and from there, she gets punch in the face many times by many characters. (I guess that’s supposed to be funny or shocking.) But it made me wonder: why all the men beating up the woman? Still, if Tarantino movies are your thing, The Hateful Eight won’t disappoint.
The Hateful Eight and Son Of Saul both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com