March 2016

Arts & Letters

Black lists

By Luke Davies

Doing the right thing in Jay Roach’s ‘Trumbo’ and László Nemes’ ‘Son of Saul’

The television series Breaking Bad is held in high regard for many reasons. Over five seasons spread across six years, it attained the quality of a Greek tragedy. The writing sparkled. The cinematography dazzled (literally – it was shot in sun-baked Albuquerque, New Mexico). Even minor characters were beautifully drawn and came with rich inner lives. Its narrative lurched relentlessly from near-catastrophe to near-catastrophe, so that the show maintained the structure of a thriller at the same time as it delved, with touching melancholy, into the heart of television’s most extended mid-life crisis. The journey of hapless, mild-mannered Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from high-school chemistry teacher to drug kingpin, and the demented excesses of his moral downfall, had a teeth-clenching purity.

So gripping was the show’s momentum, it was easy to overlook the extraordinary physical comedy embedded in Cranston’s every walking moment as White. Although White was ultimately a tragic figure, Cranston, in playing him, was physically all clown. In the early seasons the criminals were like gods, and White a mere mortal who had slipped accidentally into Elysium. And so he was a stumbler. It was there, in his physicality, in his gangly goodwill, that we first felt sympathy for him.

In Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo (in national release), Cranston is Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter blacklisted in the Hollywood anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1940s and ’50s. Once again Cranston plays a character whose temperament is predominantly intellectual rather than physical. But, as in Breaking Bad, he physicalises the intellectual punchiness as he dodges and feints through his dilemmas. He’s a scrapper, whether he’s attacking his typewriter as he churns out a script, giving cheek while refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), or getting up in John Wayne’s face: “If you’re going to talk about World War Two as if you personally won it, let’s be clear where you were stationed – on a film set, shooting blanks, wearing make-up.”

In 1947 Trumbo was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC. Refusing to name names, he was held in contempt of Congress and jailed for 11 months in 1950. Blacklisted from working in Hollywood, he churned out scripts under pseudonyms for some years, for very little money. (Prior to his downfall, he had been for a time the highest-paid screenwriter in town.) During this period, two of his uncredited screenplays won Oscars. Trumbo was unable to collect the awards, let alone claim authorship of the films. In 1975 he was officially recognised as the Oscar winner for The Brave One (1956), and in 1993 he was posthumously awarded the Oscar for Roman Holiday (1953).

The film charts Trumbo’s relentless good cheer through his tribulations, and his belief that, in a democracy, the right to free speech will prevail over the right to suppress it. Trumbo’s affable cast includes Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G Robinson, Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, Cleo, Helen Mirren as gossip columnist and rabid anti-communist Hedda Hopper, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas (who in 1960 had the courage to push for Trumbo’s rightful crediting as the screenwriter of Spartacus), and comedian Louis CK as fellow blacklisted screenwriter Arlen Hird – a composite character of five actual communist screenwriters.

The film’s crisp narrative gets straight to the point: we plunge directly into Trumbo’s sinister treatment at the hands of the HUAC, skipping through main events without fanfare or flab. It’s lively and fresh in some ways. Trumbo is garrulous and charming, and at times magnanimous in the face of constant vitriol. There are nice lines scattered throughout: Otto Preminger’s description of the Leon Uris novel Exodus, which he plans to film, as “very nearly a perfect piece of shit”; and Arlen Hird insisting to a doubting Trumbo that he knew Hemingway once, sort of (“If I walk into a bar in Paris – OK, maybe not my name, but I’ll get a wave”). And yet, for Trumbo’s amiable strengths, it does feel like a telemovie: that freshness comes from what’s historically interesting in the story, rather than something intrinsically artistic in the film’s execution.

In an archival postscript, the real Trumbo talks to an interviewer about those years of banishment, in which his children could never even speak to friends of what their father did. He surmises what he’ll tell his children, should the day ever come when he is exonerated: “Here is one secret you needn’t be burdened with … We have our names back again.”

In the striking but difficult-to-watch Son of Saul (in limited release), it’s not just names that are in jeopardy; in Auschwitz, the Nazis seek the total erasure of the collective identity of an entire race. Director László Nemes sets out to show us not the intricacies of the Final Solution, enacted in some cinematic interplay between heroes and villains, but one man’s surrender to horror in the grey area between complicity and courage.

Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian-born poet and Judaic studies teacher who lives in New York, and who last acted 27 years ago in a Hungarian television series, utilises, on the surface, some of the same restless energy we see in Cranston’s performances. Röhrig is Saul Ausländer, an inmate of Auschwitz and part of a Sonderkommando unit. Jewish prisoners were enlisted to carry out the logistical work of the killing of new arrivals in the camp: calming them as they undressed (“Remember your hook number – hurry up or the soup will get cold”), handing over their valuables to the German officers, herding them into the “showers”, disposing of their bodies.

The Sonderkommando were the answer to the Nazis’ dilemma of how to involve the least number of Germans in the business of exterminating the Jews. The Sonderkommando were themselves killed en masse every few months. “We don’t have days,” says one inmate, urgently. “They’re already making a list of us.” They were, after all, the Geheimnisträger – the “bearers of secrets”.

The movie focuses without let-up on blank-faced Saul, a functionary of death going through some suffocated imitation of “life” even as his own time runs out. He’s not a character who “develops”, as in the normal cinematic sense of the word. In this world the mechanics of annihilation play out in a kind of breathless, silent panic, but nothing advances. Where Cranston the actor is a master of playing characters whose minds are endlessly alert to the ways in which they will “win”, and whose bodies enact, however imperfectly, those cerebral designs, Röhrig plays a character whose mind is in shutdown and whose body moves with the jerky intensity of a deranged automaton. Here, movement is not a form of survival, for there’s nothing to win, only something to ward off. Saul’s physicality – like that of the equally frantic peripheral characters, fear-soaked ghost men and women – is no more than dread made kinetic.

But a singular event occurs, and from that seed the film takes its drastic shape. Saul is dragging bodies out of the gas chamber – the camera always remains close on his face, with the edges of frame always out of focus, as if we’re inhabiting Saul’s self-preserving consciousness – when he hears a choked gasp. An adolescent boy has survived the gassing, albeit briefly. Saul gives himself a mission that is basically insane: he will hide the body until he can find a rabbi who can properly say Kaddish (recite the Mourner’s Prayer) over it, as is the Jewish custom. And he will bury the body, rather than let it be cremated.

All this takes place on the day before and the day of the Auschwitz-Birkenau revolt of 7 October 1944, where a group of Sonderkommando overthrew the Nazi guards, killing three and temporarily escaping. By way of explaining his perplexing actions, Saul claims the boy is his son from a past extramarital affair. It’s never made clear whether this is actually the case; the watertightness of Saul’s story seems far less important to him than the redemptive possibility afforded by his all-consuming quest.

Along the way, the tension ratchets ever upwards. The film is near unbearable to watch, so oppressive is its sense of foreboding and unease. In a hurried meeting regarding the exchange of contraband, Saul gazes into the eyes of a woman. Is it his wife? Nothing in Son of Saul is spelled out for us. She goes to touch his hand. He flinches. “Saul,” she says. Somewhere, far away, it’s clear there’s a history. But we are far from the cinema of emotional arcs. The film’s extraordinary sound design adds to our discomfort. Doors slam. Turbines wind up as fresh loads of prisoners are herded into the chambers. Offscreen, a cacophony of voices bark half-finished phrases. And through it all, Saul, a madman, continually moves a body around.

In interviews, Röhrig has pointed out that many Holocaust movies have not paid proper testament to the dead. “[T]he historical truth is that two out of three Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in Europe,” he told Indiewire’s Zack Sharf. “Why are all these movies concentrating only on the lucky third? … Every single survival was due to a systematic error. No one was allowed to survive, so we’re not being fair and serving justice for the dead if we keep telling these narratives about how x, y or z made it through.”

This refusal to allow redemption into the narrative is what gives Son of Saul both a terrible bleakness and a great strength. Director Nemes wants to bear witness, not set your heart at ease; in this cinema of unflinching dread, the heart sticks in the throat, and stays there. “It is neither easy nor agreeable,” wrote Primo Levi of his own Auschwitz experience, “to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children.” With this in mind, Son of Saul succeeds as a reminder that outrage is an ever-timely, ever-valid response to the barbarity of the Holocaust. We can hardly say, as Saul does from deep in that abyss, “I wish I understood nothing.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane in Trumbo.

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