I took a break from the nonstop news coverage of this year’s controversial Academy Awards ceremony to watch some of the films whose deserved recognition was almost drowned out by the political commentary.

Conveniently, I was able to view two of these movies at the Michigan Theater in a very serious but stimulating double feature on February 29, 2016.

The movies showed me many sides of the human condition. All of the actors and actresses in these movies were new to me, so I had no other impressions of them, which made them seem more like real people.

Live Action Oscar Shorts

First up was a 4:15 p.m. screening of the five nominated live action short films, which ranged in length from about 15 to 30 minutes.

The short lengths of these films gave them a lot of intensity, because of the sharp plot points that had to be quickly made. The viewer moved rapidly from high point to high point, with less of the reflective space that you find in feature films.

As the films were screened, several standard themes emerged that still allowed for much creativity.

There were numerous culture clashes, particularly in Ave Maria, where some Israeli Jews crash their car in the heavily Arab West Bank and have to ask for help from nuns who have taken a vow of silence.

A similar culture clash was in Day One, in which an Afghanistan-born American women is acting as an interpreter for the United Starts army in Afghanistan. She ends up helping the wife of a suspected terrorist deliver a baby.

Both Ave Maria and Day One also showed the practical limits of otherwise useful religious rituals and customs, and how people need to connect through their common humanity.

The parental connection to a child was also a common theme, particularly in the German Everything Will Be Okay. A divorced father attempts to take his daughter illegally out of the country. Much of this film focused on the daughter’s reaction to her situation, and showed the vulnerability of children to the actions of their parents.

Basic human relationships also were important in these films. They ranged from the haunted friendship of two young boys in war-torn 1990s Kosovo in Shok, to the poignant on-line dating between a young man and woman in Stutterer.

The Oscar was awarded to Stutterer, maybe because of its upbeat ending and warm embrace of its main characters. I would have voted for either Day One or Everything Will Be Okay. Both films left me emotionally drained, and showed how a filmmaker could make the screen come alive with realism.

While I waited for 6:45 p.m. showing of the next movie, the Oscar-winning foreign language film Son of Saul, I glanced at the brochure for the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. The Michigan Theater will host this event on March 15-20, 2016. The experimental nature of much of the work at the AAFF was in interesting contrast to the more conventional (but still powerful) short films that I had just watched.

I also enjoyed the organ playing of Henry Aldridge, whose selections included “In the Still of the Night” and “Almost Like Being in Love.” This melodious interlude helped relax my mood in between two powerfully serious film experiences.

Son of Saul

This Hungarian film had been advertised as one of the most harrowing films ever made about the Holocaust, so I braced myself for many disturbing, uncomfortable scenes.

The content was exactly what I expected in this relentlessly grim movie, but was less emotionally wrenching than I expected, but perhaps that’s what the director intended.

Son of Saul focuses on Saul Ausländer, a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who is helping out with the cleanup work after mass executions until his own time for execution comes.

The director László Nemes decided to focus the camera mainly on near and medium closeups of Saul, who was memorably portrayed by Géza Röhrig. The background was often blurred, but you could still vaguely see the horrifying details of Saul’s everyday world.

Another important technical decision was the filming of Son of Saul with the frame shape that was common in movies before the widescreen era. This 1.375:1 aspect ratio (often called the Academy ratio) further helped focus the film on Saul. The 35-mm print of Son of Saul that was shown at the Michigan added more depth and vitality to the drab colors of the film.

These technical details helped create an overall effect in which you felt the numb horror of the everyday existence of concentration camp workers like Saul. You’re fully alive to the alertness and quick reactions that Saul needs to survive hour to hour.

When Saul takes on the personal mission that gives the movie its title, his quest at first looks pointless and fruitless, amidst all of the desperate attempts at survival that surround him.

But by the end of the movie, you understand much better the concerns of Saul for the “son of Saul, ” and how it helped Saul feel more alive and gave him a feeling of purpose in his doomed world. The final image of Saul has a poignant tenderness that helps the viewer better understand his difficult journey.

Much of the power of Son of Saul comes through after you’ve left the theater, as the movie settles into a permanent place in your mind and emotions.

The memory of the haunting, human face of Géza Röhrig as Saul will live with me for a long time. As I go through my daily routine, I’ll feel thankful for even the smallest, most mundane blessings, after closely observing a few days in the life of a concentration camp prisoner.

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Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.


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