A Hungarian Double Bill

So it turns out other countries make films too. I was hungry to find out more, so I looked toward the cinema of, er, Hungary.

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) is set in Auschwitz, so it need hardly be said that it makes for sobering viewing. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the death-camp Sonderkommando, inmates who were forced to help facilitate the mass murder of fellow prisoners in the gas chambers and dispose of the bodies afterwards. When he spots one victim who he believes to be his son, he determines to give the boy a proper burial without being noticed by the guards. It's a grim set-up and Nemes' camera is right there in the middle of it, spending the majority of the film in the personal space of Saul, peering over his shoulder or up in his face, as he witnesses the horrors around him. For us as viewers, those horrors are only briefly glimpsed in the background, out-of-focus or quickly out-of-frame, but no less distressing for not being dwelt upon or clearly visualised. Technically, then, it makes for a impressive directorial debut, with the geography and choreography of the long takes immaculately achieved. But it is unrelentingly grim viewing, which begs the question 'why watch it?' There is a case to be made for a film that simply depicts the everyday experience of a Sonderkommando - people need to know this happened. And I certainly don't expect it to be artificially melodramatic just to make it a better 'story'. But I did not really find it a celebration of the human spirit as some others have done, so not sure I could honestly recommend it. Still, it won a slew of awards, including Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, so what do I know?

White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2015) takes place in Budapest, following the adventures of a beloved family dog Hagen after he is separated from his young owner and taken into a dog pound. But beware (of the dog); Lassie Come Home this ain't. It's not long before Hagen is being trained for illegal dogfights and the ensuing scenes of doggy violence are likely to leave any dog-lovers angry and/or deeply upset. Indeed, the film-makers manage to make these scenes disturbingly real, especially since the entire production was under great pains to ensure no animals were harmed; some smart editing and animal handling is used to great effect. Moreover, the dogs here actually appear to act - one scene as a forlorn Hagen stands over a vanquished foe is really astonishing. Although not as astonishing as the subsequent plot developments which sees Hagen inspire the dog population of the city to rise up against the bastard humans who have mistreated them. It's like an extreme art-house dog version of Spartacus; Spartacur, anyone? Of course, if you don't want to make jokes about it, it's actually allegorical satire. Mundruczó was inspired by author JM Coetzee's writings about South Africa, which struck a chord with his own experiences of life in Eastern Europe. Thus, it works as a parable about class divisions in society and politics, all wrapped up in a shaggy-dog package. Odd, but also oddly compelling.

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