Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 5:00 pm 
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Concentration camp through the eyes of a teenage boy

Fateless (Sorstalanság ) grows out of a famous novel by 2002 Nobel laureate in literature Imre Kertész, based on his own experiences as a 14-year old Jewish boy from Budapest held in Nazi concentration camps toward the end of the War, released, and returned home.

When we first meet him, Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy) is sort of cool: tall, thin, self-possessed, with big puff-head hair -- rather like a young Bob Dylan.

We enter a world of confusion and denial which he is forced to inhabit. Gyuri is conscientious about keeping his Star of David showing as he walks home across a square, as if it's a point of sartorial pride. He doesn't know very well the Hebrew liturgy he's asked to repeat in his family, but he's not like the neighbor girl he fancies, who cries because she doesn't know what it means to be a Jew. Gyuri arrives to find his father deprived of his business and commanded to go off to "work camp." Gyuri's assigned to work in a factory and two elders -- a Kafkaesque pair, whom we'll meet again when the war's over -- argue vociferously over whether he should go to his job by bus or by train, as if that decision would resolve the whole predicament. The women are silently weeping, the men self-deceived hypocrites: or are they being brave?

Gyuri is detached and confident, up for trying a little smooching during an air raid. He's not a hero but he seems capable of thriving. Nonetheless he almost dies in the camps. In fact when he's back he says he's already dead. "Maybe I don't exist," he tells the girl he flirted with before.

Gyuri isn't taken away in a terrifying sweep like the Warsaw Ghetto sequence in Schindler's List; in fact, things continue to be Kafkaesque. He's pulled off a bus going to the factory and held up with some others by an inept cop who waits for orders, all at sea himself. The whole process of going to the camps seems like a series of bureaucratic snafus. Later Gyuri observes that there were many points where anyone might have escaped. (See Kafka's The Trial.)

A crucial point comes when a lot of boys are unloaded at Auschwitz and somebody tips them off to claim they're 16. A German soldier with the face of a cadaver thumbs Gyuri to the right, to work. A littler, bespectacled boy and an officious engineer who brags of his skills and his "perfect German" are sent left, to die. From Buchenwald Gyuri's sent to a smaller camp where there aren't even gas chambers and crematoria.

From then on the camp experience is a series of short sequences ending in blackouts, nightmarish vignettes that stay in the moment and avoid grand scenes -- except for the hanging of three escaped prisoners who've been caught. Characters emerge only to disappear in the chaos of camp life. A man who's just survived four years in a Soviet prison camp becomes Gyuri's protector and mentor, showing him how to horde bits of food and keep clean to avoid lice and disease.

But Gyuri eventually balks at this second level of control, lets himself fall prey to hunger and exhaustion, grows scabby and corpse-like and collapses with a swollen and infected knee. It's treated but then gets even worse and he's thrown on a pile of corpses, the undead among the almost dead and the already dead. Through this his voice-over comments on scenes that unroll for us. Sloughing through rain and mud, always cold, hungry, thirsty, the boy still sees a beauty in the twilight hour when they return from work, eat, and have a minute of peace in this stark hell-hole in which later he says they were happy, because things were simple and clear.

The young actor grew four inches during filmmaking and his voice changed. It's his deeper voice that narrates and tells us at the end about a nostalgia for this clarity and simplicity, for "the happiness of the camps" that no outsider ever knows about, and his physical transformation echoes the transformation of his character whose body is still a teenager's but whose mind is middle-aged.

Somehow the boy ends the war in a prison hospital that restores his strength. The most astonishing moments come when (resisting an American officer's advice to go to Switzerland, then to America) Gyuri returns to Budapest. Here he is back in town, cadaverous, sunken-eyed, scabby-lipped, in prison stripes, yet somehow firm and proud, on a Budapest trolley answering a man's questions, explaining to him that in the camp, beatings and starvation were all quite "natural." This and encounters with the would-be girlfriend and family and neighbors are the freshest moments in this beautiful, painful, eye-opening look at the Nazi persecution.

Director Koltai has long been a fine cinematographer and the visuals in Fateless are striking, the horrible smoke from the ovens lovely in the evening light, even as they make the young hero realize what it means and declare, "We are all going to die." This was the most expensive Hungarian production but it's not showy. Kertész has his own dry take on his subject: "Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history." The Holocaust isn't a unique event, Kertész insists in his Nobel lecture, nor is it a special Jewish one -- so much as an inescapable fact whose occurrence in a "Christian cultural environment" in the words of Hungarian Catholic poet János Pilinszky, is a simply a "scandal." Showing the camps through the eyes of a pubescent boy who suffers but experiences beauty is essential to the cold neutrality of the author's viewpoint, and director Koltai has recreated things in a way that never feels manipulative. No tragic sweeping strings -- no tragedy at all; rather a mix of grim suffering and transcendence that takes you close to the experience, without letting you pretend that you've been there.

When someone asks Gyuri how he is when he's back he answers, "Very, very angry."

Fateless/Sorstalanság, 140 mins., debuted at Hungarian Film Festival, also showed at Berlin, Karlovy, Telluride, Toronto, Chicago; US theatrical release NYC 6 January 2006.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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