Film review of Son of Saul

February 28, 2016

(This film review of “Son of Saul” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 25, 2016.)

Directed by László Nemes

Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer

Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn and Sándor Zsótér

When the Hungarian film “Son of Saul” wins the Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” tomorrow, it will be the 21st film representing the Holocaust – starting with 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” – to win an Oscar.

This year, unlike last year’s win by the Polish film “Ida”, the Oscar will be well-deserved. “Son of Saul” is one of the most powerful, engrossing and unforgettable films to be released in the last year, and will takes its place as one of the finest Holocaust dramas ever made. Set completely in one concentration camp – presumably Auschwitz, although that’s never specified – and over a two-day period in October 1944, “Son of Saul” neatly blends historical events with a quixotic quest by its protagonist. The resulting film avoids dramatising the slaughter, but still manages to portray the brutality, hopelessness, dehumanisation, and controlled chaos that characterised the Nazi genocide against the Jews: we hear the pounding on the doors of the gas chambers, but do not view what’s inside, only glimpsing the aftermath.

“Son of Saul” focusses on one character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando – those inmates chosen selected by the SS guards to accompany prisoners to the gas chambers and to clean up afterwards, taking bodies to the ovens and disposing of the ashes. One day, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. “But you never had a son,” someone says. “Not by my wife,” he replies. As the Sonderkommando plan a rebellion (which really did take place on 7 October 1944), Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and organise a proper burial.

This film owes part of its success to a brilliant Géza Röhrig in the role of Saul, terse (his first words occur more than 10 minutes into the film: “I will”), enigmatic, slight and street-wise, always moving. Röhrig is a New York-based Jewish Hungarian writer, poet and part-time actor who recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

While given extra food and relative freedom of movement around the camp, the life of Sonderkommandos was limited, as the Nazis ensured that they killed them every few months in order to erase the possibility of witnesses. Incredibly, buried Sonderkommando eyewitness accounts from Auschwitz survived the war and were published under the title “Voices From Beneath the Ashes” (also known as “The Scrolls of Auschwitz”); these provided key inspiration to director László Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer.

Saul tries valiantly to humanise death, to give a sense of individuality to the many dead. Is his attempt suitable? Possibly not, for – as one character says to him, “You fail the living for the dead.” But as an act that demands humanity – or possibly as an indication of Saul’s serious psychosis – it is powerful.

Technically, “Son of Saul” is a marvel, with a virtuoso cinematic style that almost always shows only Saul’s point of view. Backgrounds are out of focus, and we generally only see what Saul sees and experiences. There are almost no “wide” shots; everything is in close-up or “mid” shot, showing only half a person (much to discuss here). There are also very few edits, including the film’s opening shot, which goes on possibly for three or more minutes. (There could be fewer than 200 edits in the whole film, compared to many thousands of edits in standard film fare.) The result is claustrophobic, powerful and unique.

The film’s European roots enhance its sense of verisimilitude. Unlike “Schindler’s List” – indeed a towering and emotional achievement – “Son of Saul” takes place in the “real” languages of the characters: Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Polish and Hebrew. Those who understand Hungarian and German, in particular, will get the most out of this film, because knowing the national and religious background of each speaker is important.

“Son of Saul” contains no “back story”; the film just begins. Nor is there an epilogue; when the film ends, you know it’s over.

Son of Saul

Film review of Trumbo

February 21, 2016

(This film review of “Trumbo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 February 2016.)

Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara, based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg

Although the “Hollywood blacklist” increasingly seems to be an artefact of history, the events of that time – from 1947 to the early 1960s – remain some of the most significant intersections between two objects of world-wide fascination: American film and American politics. During a time of domestic political upheaval and external Soviet expansion, American politics turned rightwards. A “witch-hunt” for American Communists resulted in the “blacklisting” of a number of people in the film industry, under pressure from the US Congress “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC).

That’s the background to the new biopic, “Trumbo”, which focuses on the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”. Starring Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) in the title role, the film charts Trumbo’s experiences as a left-wing organiser through to the blacklisting process, his time in prison for “contempt of Congress”, his subsequent of writing uncredited scripts in order to make a living, and his triumphant return.

Remarkably, the “blacklist” has only appeared a handful of feature films, notably “The Front” (1976, with Woody Allen), “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991, with Robert De Niro), “The Majestic” (2001, with Jim Carrey), and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, George Clooney), and briefly in “The Way We Were” (1973, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) and the subject of a few documentaries.

The story is a powerful one, and Cranston – nominated for an Oscar for his role – provides one of the best performances of the year. Cranston reflects the complicated nature of this progressive and hard-working genius, who remained loyal to his principles, his family and his friends – and who produced some of the best 20th century American film writing. Helen Mirren gives the film’s other outstanding performance, as right-wing newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With such a great actress, it’s not surprising that director Jay Roach (who converted to Judaism to marry his wife, musician Susanna Hoffs) and writer John McNamara give her lots of screen time, significantly over-stating the importance of her role in the blacklist. One scene – surely fictional – sees Hopper threatening MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) to bow to the blacklist, calling him various antisemitic epithets. Did this happen? Not likely. Mayer – a businessman like all of the film moguls – reluctantly acceded to the blacklist under political pressure far greater than what Hopper’s newspaper column could bring.

For fans of Jewish film history, there is much to savour in “Trumbo”. In addition to Mayer, other important Jewish characters include “Arlen Hird” (Louis C.K.), a “composite” character representing a number of the Jewish “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters; Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg, the new “go to” Jewish actor for Jewish roles in “Steve Jobs”, “Blue Jasmine” , “A Serious Man” and “Boardwalk Empire”); John Goodman as Frank King (“Kozinsky”), the Jewish schlock movie producer who secretly hired Trumbo and other blacklisted writers; Kirk Douglas (Dean O‘Gorman), who openly hired Trumbo to write the script of “Spartacus”, which Douglas both produced and starred in; and Otto Preminger, the Austrian-Jewish director of “Exodus”, who hired Trumbo to adapt Leon Uris’ novel to the screen.

If there are any heroes in “Trumbo”, King, Douglas and Preminger – all of them Jewish – are the ones, for resisting pressure not to deal with Trumbo. Douglas and Preminger are both widely credited with finally breaking the blacklist, a combination of their personal power and an indication that the political times had changed, particularly under President John F. Kennedy. (Douglas has also stated that the proudest moment of his career was “breaking the blacklist”.)

“Trumbo” has been made with great love of American film, and includes some lovely recreations of famous film scenes, such as Douglas in “Spartacus”, and other notable characters including John Wayne (David James Elliott), and Diane Lane playing Trumbo’s wife Cleo. Despite the great story and some delightful performances, “Trumbo” the film falls down with an often pedestrian script by McNamara; the first third of the film plays like a telemovie rather than a proper feature. My critique of the script goes far deeper, however, in that the focus on Trumbo’s life results in lack of recognition of the role of Jews as the primary victims of the blacklist, and its antisemitic nature.

All of the original “Hollywood Ten” served time in prison for refusing to testify in front of the Congressional Committee, and not just Trumbo (the film does not make this clear). Many film historians point out that antisemitism and attacks on Jews formed a crucial undercurrent of the Congressional investigations and the blacklist. Among the “Ten”, six were Jewish: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz and Sam Ornitz. Of the four non-Jews, three were closely involved with films that dealt with antisemitism: Edward Dymtryk and Adrian Scott (director and producer of “Crossfire”) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (writer of “Earth and High Heaven”, similar to “Gentleman’s Agreement”). Thus of the ten, only Trumbo was neither Jewish nor had worked on an antisemitism project, although “Exodus” came later. The overwhelming majority of HUAC “witnesses”, both friendly and unfriendly, were Jewish.

The film ends, appropriately enough, with Dalton Trumbo’s emotional 1970 speech to the American Screenwriters Guild, when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and appeared to forgive those who “named names”, when he famously said, “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one … who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals…. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

(photo below:  Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird and Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo”)


Film review of Steve Jobs

February 14, 2016

(This review of “Steve Jobs” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 11, 2016.)

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Walter Isaacson
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston

When Apple tops the world’s list of companies by market valuation (yes, number one), it is natural to be fascinated by the new film “Steve Jobs” about its visionary co-founder, played by Michael Fassbender. It also helps that Steve Jobs was larger than life, a major presence in the both corporate and technology worlds over three decades, far out-classing his brilliant but less confident Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen).

With “Steve Jobs”, Jewish screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) establishes his primacy as the top screen “interpreter” of technology company founders, following his Oscar-winning screenplay of “The Social Network”, about the early days of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Despite the direction of Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Sorkin “owns” the creative force of “Steve Jobs” in a way that few screenwriters can do.

Like “The Social Network”, some of the facts and many of the interpretations in “Steve Jobs” are disputed by those who were close to the action. Sorkin originally developed his dramatic flair with stage plays; “Steve Jobs” could, in fact, be one of them. It runs on a three-act structure, with each “act” centred on one technology launch by Jobs: the Macintosh in 1984, the NEXT Cube in 1988 and finally the iMac in 1998.

The film includes flashbacks and scene-setting documentary footage, including the famous “1984” Super Bowl advertisement for the Macintosh computer, but most of “Steve Jobs” takes place within the buildings where the three launches took place. At each launch, six real-life characters from Jobs’ life seek him out, all stating their case of what they want from him (behaviour, money, recognition, love, acceptance).

Psychologically vulnerable former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) wants a reluctant Steve to acknowledge the existence of their daughter, Lisa (played by different actresses at ages 5, 9 and 19), as well as money to live on. Young Lisa simply wants a father figure, which Jobs churlishly refuses to be. Russian-born Jewish Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the Apple Head of Marketing, is the one employee who can stand up to Jobs’ bullying, and acts as his personal and professional conscience. Much is made of Hoffman’s “shtetl” upbringing; she is one of the most interesting Jewish characters to appear in American films in the last year.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Rogen) wants Jobs simply to recognise the contributions of his Apple 2 design team, something that Jobs steadfastly and boorishly refuses to do. Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) wants Jobs to behave properly with his board of directors. And lead Apple designer Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg) just wants Jobs to treat him like a human being, not a cog in a machine.

Did all of these characters interact with Jobs at each launch? No. But Sorkin’s “dramatic license” allows the film to show how all of these intimates developed their relationships with Jobs over time. It’s a classic technique, brilliantly executed.

The result is a wordy and at times claustrophobic film, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The personality of Jobs that emerges – a supremely confident, charismatic, controlling and not-very-nice-man – can also make the film difficult to watch. In addition to Sorkin’s fine screenplay, however, the performances are all strong and frequently riveting, with Fassbender and Winslet (both Oscar-nominated) standing out.

Although Jobs was not Jewish, the film has many Jewish connections: both writers – Sorkin and original book author Walter Isaacson; and the characters Hertzfeld and Hoffman, along with the journalists Walt Mossberg and Joel Pforzheimer, are all Jewish. Although Steve Wozniak was not Jewish, Seth Rogen plays him like a character who is. Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear.

(photo below:  Michael Stuhlbard, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs”)

Stuhlbarg Fassbender Winslet

Silicon Valley’s View of the World

February 6, 2016

As I have written about previously, California is another world. Endlessly fascinating, endlessly changing. It is also becoming the power centre of our current world. New York, London, Los Angeles, sure. But think Silicon Valley, a place so powerful that it has turned San Francisco into its “bedroom community”, according to Rebecca Solnit and others. (I suspect that if you live there, this is so not news.) Why has Qantas started direct flights to San Francisco from Sydney? Easy to answer, that.

Still not convinced? What’s the most valuable company in the world, by market capitalisation? Apple. Also in the top five: Google and Microsoft. Microsoft? I hear you say, isn’t that so last century? Apparently not.

In the November 2015 issue of “The Atlantic”, the “View from the Valley” column reported on a survey of 101 technology leaders. Go to the article for all the results, but here are some highlights:

Who would the tech leaders vote for?
– Hillary Clinton, 43%
– Bernie Sanders, 11%
– Jeb Bush, 5%
– Lawrence Lessig, 2%
– Marco Rubio, 2%
– Martin O’Malley, 2%
– Warren Buffet, 2%
– “Anyone but Trump”, 5%
– Undecided, 28%

Which TV show or movie of the past decade best captured the culture of Silicon Valley?
– HBO’s “Silicon Valley”, 37%
– “The Social Network”, 12%
– “Game of Thrones”, 7%
(This was before the release of the current “Steve Jobs” film.  My review to come next week.)

In 20 years, which of the following companies will still be in business?
– Apple, 95%
– Google, 94%
– Amazon, 91%
– Facebook, 75%
– Microsoft, 71%
– IBM, 54%
– Uber, 52%
– LinkedIn, 48%
– PayPal, 39%
– eBay, 29%
– Twitter, 23%
– Yahoo, 16%

(My comment: the ephemeral nature of the tech industry is a wonder to behold. And these hard insights are a real lesson to those of us who think that what we see now will be there in the future. Isn’t Yahoo about to disappear – despite the fact that it still has one of the biggest media audiences in the world?)

Could the Sony hack happen to your company?
– Yes, 74%
– No, 24%
Comment by Dev Ittycheria, President and CEO of MongoDB: “Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves.”

film review of Spotlight

February 4, 2016

(This review appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 28 January 2016. Click here to view a copy of the Jewish News article.)

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D’Arcy James and Billy Crudup

There are many good reasons to see the new film “Spotlight”, which details the real-life events of how the “Boston Globe” newspaper reported on and “broke” the story of systematic Catholic clergy child abuse. It’s the best film about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men” dramatised the Watergate scandal. The superb cast – all portraying real-life characters – provides the best ensemble acting of any film in recent memory. And “Spotlight” is set in a time (2001 and 2002, spanning the events of September 11th) and a place (Boston) that grounds the film in a true historical reality, down to the thick and accurate Boston accents, and including a fabulous portrayal of a media world on the cusp of dramatic digital transformation.

“Spotlight” is the name of the “Boston Globe’s” investigative team, a group of fiercely independent journalists. In the middle of 2001, the “Globe” – then owned by the “The New York Times” – received its first editor who had not grown up locally: Marty Baron (played by Liev Schrieber), transferred by “The Times” from the “Miami Herald”, and subsequently named by “Esquire” magazine as the “best news editor of all time”. Baron was also the “Globe’s” first Jewish editor; he encouraged the Spotlight team to tackle the simmering child abuse scandal. With Catholics comprising more than half the paper’s readership – and the Spotlight team all “lapsed” Catholics themselves – it took the outsider, the Jewish guy, to force the issue, against both internal resistance and external opposition.

Baron wasn’t the only outsider on the case. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci) had long represented numerous child abuse victims suing the Church. Garabedian’s character points out that as an Armenian, he is not part of Boston’s Catholic “power elite”, and thus able to challenge the status quo. In Boston, religion matters. A lot.

Although Baron and Garabedian played important roles in uncovering the scandal, the film concentrates on the work of the Spotlight team itself: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), team leader Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), and researchers Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), following them through their daily grind and the emotional journeys of slowly uncovering what turned out to be one of the biggest religious scandals in American history. No-one, including this team at first, could believe that the Church had systematically covered up and protected so many abusive priests. The team eventually published 600 stories about the abuse and the team received a Pulitzer Prize.

This is a “close” and intimate film, powerful and fast-paced, with an extraordinary attention to detail by writer/director Tom McCarthy. Not surprisingly, “Spotlight” has received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations, for best picture, director, editing, original script and acting for Ruffalo and McAdams. Aside from the realistic Boston settings, the sense of verisimilitude is enhanced by the cast: most of the Catholic characters are played by Catholics and Schrieber is Jewish.

This is another important reason to see “Spotlight”: as one of the most important contemporary dramatic films made about religion, it holds far-reaching significance for Australia. The film concludes with an on-screen listing of 105 American cities and 102 dioceses world-wide where sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light: 22 of the international locations are Australian, from Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney to Wollongong, with many in-between.

“Spotlight” also illustrates a major reason why the Catholic Church refused to take a principled stand against the antisemitic portrayal of Jews by Mel Gibson in his 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ”. According to a Boston priest with extensive interfaith Jewish experience who I interviewed in 2008, the Church’s authority was so weakened by the scandals depicted in “Spotlight” that the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops felt unable or unwilling to risk offending their constituencies by criticising a popular Hollywood film. The result: far greater success for Gibson’s film than it deserved.

Spotlight(photo above: the lead actors of the “Spotlight” team: from left – Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy James