I saw triple-Oscar winner “Dunkirk” last week and liked it: the structure, the realism and the evocation of a vast historical episode all worked for me. Some reviews found it hampered by the lack of character development, the amped-up soundtrack, and the almost invisible presence of the German threat.
Those criticisms seemed secondary to me compared to the mythical power of Dunkirk in what it said about the human condition. In that sense, it reminded me a lot of “Son of Saul,” the 2016 Oscar winner for best foreign film. An excruciating vision of life and death among the sonderkommandos in Auschwitz in October 1944, Son of Saul came across as disorienting, confusing in its relationships and illogical — as if logic and order were common in concentration camps. As with Dunkirk, I saw Son of Saul less as a concrete moment of history, although it had that aspect, and more as a statement about the struggle to sustain a tiny corner of faith and humanity in a vast field of destruction.
Both movies overflow with the inescapable presence of death, from enemies that are almost impossible to confront. Dunkirk begins with British soldiers racing through a seemingly empty French village, only to be gunned down until only one remains. Soldiers waiting for evacuation on the beach line up and then crouch down to avoid the bullets and bombs of the Luftwaffe. Some soldiers think they have escaped, only to die when their ship is torpedoed. Sometimes even those on your own side can be a source of danger. No matter how hard you try to live, the impersonal forces of death surround you, but still you soldier on. The soundtrack and English accents weren’t obstacles for me, since Dunkirk’s meaning didn’t really depend on plot and dialogue to work as a depiction of primal forces. The action plays out on a vast scale of aerial combat, ocean attacks and beaches that stretch for miles. The reptilian urge to stay alive and help your mates in that environment comes across clearly without excessive words.
Son of Saul delivered an even more claustrophobic, terrorizing vision. Saul is one of the sonderkommandos, Jews who temporarily survived by herding other Jews into gas chambers and then cleaning up the aftermath. Unlike the panorama of Dunkirk, Son of Saul relentlessly focuses on Saul with the violence around him mostly heard and glimpsed, unfocused and emerging from smoke. The film begins with the stunning survival of a boy in the gas chamber, only to be killed by the Germans. Saul is determined to provide a proper Jewish burial for the boy. He tries to hang on to the body even as he takes part in planning for a sonderkommando revolt. Saul even has the briefest sense of human connection with the outside world at the movie’s final seconds.
The tight focus and morbid colors add to the mood. Questions multiply: is the boy Saul’s real son, is a woman he briefly interacts with his wife? What drives his obsessive quest to find a rabbi and hold a burial─faith, defiance or madness?
And that is one major point of connection with Dunkirk. Amid the chaos, the English soldiers, their civilian rescuers and Saul fiercely hold to humane behavior that may clash with the prudence of animal survival. Civilian boaters answered the call to head to Dunkirk against all odds and the German military; even when urged to turn around, one yachtsman keeps pointed to Dunkirk. Soldiers reach out to their mates to survive in hopeless circumstances. Saul, standing at the very doors of obliteration, relentlessly searches for a rabbi to provide a burial for the miracle boy who survived and then was murdered. This quest puts Saul in even more danger, if that’s possible, but he persists. In the presence of death, he holds to the primacy of humanity and Jewish ritual.
As with Dunkirk, Son of Saul reached me not through characterization but the images of humans fighting back against degradation and holding on to civilization. I can find character-driven history elsewhere; here, both movies captivate on the level of myth and bleak visual poetry.