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1193 words

The edge of reality

8 April 2016

Cinema | Sylvia Lawson reviews Son of Saul and The Daughter

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Questing: Odessa Young in The Daughter.

Questing: Odessa Young in The Daughter.


Almost two years ago, festival screenings opened up for Australian audiences an extraordinary work of documentary retrieval, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The film explored, especially for the audiences of postwar generations, the extent of mass murder in Europe that became known, sweepingly, as the Holocaust. We were given, again, the images of the piled-up corpses in the pits; the starvation; the barely living, walking skeletons found at war’s end when the Allied forces finally entered the camps. The film combined evidence with the rigorous process of enquiry; dispassionately, and still with great force, it showed the necessity of unsparing investigation. For that reason alone, it should always be shown again. Its work surrounds that of a new generation seeking to expose again – if not to understand – the most terrible chapters of the second world war.

The much-applauded Son of Saul comes out of that framework, as taken up by the Hungarian director László Nemes and those who worked with him to revive public memory. Its focus is on the work of the Sonderkommando, the doomed cohort of those who, set for death themselves, were charged with propelling those thousands of victims into the gas chambers. One agent of the Sonderkommando catches the final moments of a young boy’s life, and becomes gripped by the belief that the boy was, or could have been, his own son. But there’s no answer; the man moves obsessively among the shadowy figures of the condemned.

The imagery works on two planes; the Sonderkommandos themselves are seen at close quarters, the crowds of the condemned as moving shadows beyond them, as though already deprived of any human reality. Some viewers found the device a matter of elaborate stylistics, transgressing the work of history, obscuring the fact that the Sonderkommando’s victims included its own agents; others read the imagery as communicating that irony with quite horrifying power. However that may be, Son of Saul comes from film-makers young enough to be the grandchildren of Hitler’s victims. From that position, their work embodies a command: lest we forget.


“Melodrama” doesn’t have to be a term of dismissal or abuse, but it’s often used that way. Simon Stone’s film The Daughter is melodrama in the best and most classical sense; the drama is within the family, and immediately around it. The social geography is given at the outset: a failing timber town, where the physical world bears, poetically, on the emotional one. We’re in a universe of heavy clouds and mists, a bleak pine forest.

We’re not told what’s in store for the timber workers when the mill finally closes. Its unapproachable owner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), manages to summon a fair crowd to dance at his wedding to the much younger former housekeeper (Anna Torv), but they seem to be assembled for that occasion only. One of the unanswered questions, in the patterning of the story, is about the meaning of that wedding: did it have to do with the emotional divorce between father and son, and what has the son, Christian (Paul Schneider), long absent, made of his mother’s suicide? Henry stumbles around, trying to tell his side of the story; for his kind of man, the opening up of personal memory is simply too hard, a process of visibly painful wrestling. Geoffrey Rush performs a real actor’s task, the spectacle of male authority confounded and defeated, and then faced with the duty of trying to reaffirm it.

Witnessing his struggle, we then find that the knottier drama involves the younger kin, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and their daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young), the only character who, with the small animals she tends, seems to belong in her place. But we could be anywhere; this tale is in no way about a particular geography, only about a family in the afterlife of their community. The strength of the film is in the way each is accorded his and her own story; each adult has a past to be unfolded and dealt with, while the teenage daughter must deal with the question of her own identity. That, in turn, poses a question for the audience; in the past time of this story, biological inheritance really mattered; for whom should it still? The symbolic link to the crippled bird isn’t overstressed, though the small animals, in their shadowed places, have their own kind of eloquence, and they too have their claims on the grownups. Hedvig – the only character to keep a name from Ibsen’s antecedent – can be seen as an innocent being linking natural and social worlds, until her own understanding of the link is shattered.

Perhaps the family can be rebuilt; since this is melodrama, that is the question, and it’s left hanging, with a limited possibility of hope. The parents must rescue themselves, and in the final image of their sad embrace in the hospital corridor, there’s the chance they may do so; for Hedvig we don’t know, and the uncertainty makes this a better film than it might have been. But the character who, of all of them, remains most expressively in memory is Sam Neill’s Walter, Oliver’s father. He is written, and referred to by himself, as someone fatally lost and compromised; a failure in his own estimation, but still one committed to the life around him, particularly Hedvig’s. Not so far from Henry’s rather improbable mansion, he lives in a caravan in the woods, where the animals also have their places. Neill’s performance gives the film its depth, and its strongest line into reality.

The Daughter, travelling an international round of festivals, has been much argued over. It is “an uninvolved work of commissioned, classic misery,” in the view of a Vancouver critic; another, at the Toronto festival, found it “bogged down in its familial drama,” while Sam Neill’s weatherbeaten presence wasn’t enough “to save the film from its melodrama.” This is a failure to recognise that melodrama is one way – if only one, with a long history – in which the internal drama of the family can be negotiated. Eddie Cockrell in Variety, however, praised Stone’s “radical retooling” of Ibsen as yielding “something urgent and new,” while others have praised the film for the range of its performances; among those, Odessa Young is even stronger here, in communicating adolescent questing, than she was in Looking for Grace.

Simon Stone has come to cinema from a career in theatre; in this case at least, the transition is entirely benign, yielding a film made brilliantly by its actors, with a fine indifference to the standard realisms of time and place. The clouds and mists of the setting are there; but we could be anywhere, and that’s the whole force of it. •

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Upbeat au revoir: the final print edition of the Independent on Sunday, for sale in central London last weekend. Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

Upbeat au revoir: the final print edition of the Independent on Sunday, for sale in central London last weekend. Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images