Screenings of two Cannes favorites — Grand Prix winner Son Of Saul and Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words, which won a special citation, drew emotional crowds to Lincoln Center in this second week of the New York Film Festival. The two movies couldn’t be more different: Son Of Saul sheds light on the darkest of the dark stories: the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced to do the cruelest work at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi extermination camps — before being murdered themselves. The Bergman film is a poignant interweaving of the Swedish star’s own home movies — from early on she was an indefatigable recorder of her own experiences — along with intimate letters to her closest friends and interviews with her children plus, almost oddly, Sigourney Weaver, who as a tyro actor shared a Broadway stage with the Oscar winner.
The László Nemes film, an astonishing directing debut, stars Géza Röhrig as Saul, a prisoner whose dead eyes come to life when he spots a boy gasping for air in a tableau mort of gassed bodies he is dragging to the crematorium for burning. He saves the boy, whose life nonetheless is snuffed. The film unfolds over the next two days as Saul becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and giving the boy a proper burial. At the same time an uprising is under way among Saul’s fellow Sonderkommando prisoners. The film is shot almost entirely in shallow focus that keeps Röhrig dominating the screen and also, not incidentally, avoids what I’ll call concentration-camp pornography of displaying desecrated bodies and starving prisoners. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is unforgettable. Hungary’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, it opens in New York in December from Sony Pictures Classics.
There was sobbing in the audience at the screening I attended. During a Q&A after, Nemes, who like Röhrig is Hungarian, explained that he had grown up hearing the stories of his grandparents’ murder. “There is a very direct relationship to what was my family. I wanted to make a film that takes place within the concentration camp,” he said, “how incredibly full of destruction the machine was for individuals.” He found his story in the true tale of a Jewish medic at Auschwitz, which had been published in Jean-Paul Sartre’s periodical, Les Temps Modernes (which, coincidentally, was co-run by Claude Lanzmann, who later as filmmaker would direct the landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah).
Röhrig, a poet and avocational actor now based in New York, added that, as the writer Primo Levi noted, having Jews performing those gruesome tasks was “the most demonic act of the Nazis, depriving them of even the solace of being victims. Ushering their own brothers and sisters to their death, they made Cain out of Abels. It was barbaric yet sophisticated, unforgivable, what they did.”
“We wanted to give dignity to the dead,” Nemes said. “The story of the Holocaust is not the story of the exceptions who survived. It’s the story of the dead.”
Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words is no anodyne to Son Of Saul, but it did offer an opportunity to reflect on the life, career and loves of a complex and complicated star. Director Stig Björkman, who earlier helmed a bio of film maker Lars von Trier, covers Bergman’s life from childhood and early stardom in Stockholm to her summoning by David O. Selznick, after making Intermezzo, to Hollywood; her affair with, and later marriage to Roberto Rossellini and her last marriage, to Lars Schmidt. The home-movie footage ranges from idyllic home and vacation scenes with her first husband, Petter Lindstrom and their daughter Pia (who would become a popular New York City newscaster), along with the children she had with Rosselini: Roberto, and twins Isotta and actress Isabella. Included are almost off-hand, casual shots of brownshirts marching in the city and countryside, their Nazi armbands prominent.
Her appearance opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca is practically an afterthought (she doesn’t seem to have thought much of her co-star). Most poignant in the film is the way Bergman’s children handled their mother’s fame (and infamy, in scandal-hungry, morally hypocritical Hollywood) — and mostly her absence. Pia Lindstrom, I think the most extensively interviewed, suffered the longest spells of isolation, yet speaks of how much fun her mother was and how much she and her siblings yearned for “more of her.”
During a Q&A after a screening, an audience member asked which of her mother’s loves meant the most to her. “You’ll have to ask her,” Lindstrom snapped back.
As for Weaver, she’s quoted in the film as having been struck by Bergman’s generosity when they appeared together on Broadway in The Constant Wife in 1975. Afterward, I asked if she would be returning to the stage anytime soon — she last appeared on Broadway in pal Christopher Durang’s Tony winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Not likely, she said; there are five movies to make in her immediate future.
The New York Film Festival continues through this weekend.