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Film Review


(February 28, 2006) How should, or can art deal with the Holocaust? Is it possible to accurately portray the horrors in film without slighting or minimizing the experience? Most would agree that it is not possible; like attempting to look directly at the sun. Even the best, such as Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants; Roman Polasnki's The Pianist; and Spielberg's Schindler's List, only give us a removed glimpse into hell. Some, like Roberto Benigni's misbegotten, Life is Beautiful, inadvertently trivialize it. Now we have Hungarian director, Lajos Koltai (Mephisto, Sunshine, etc), bringing Imre Kertesz's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name to the screen. Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. was a relatively unknown Jewish Hungarian writer, who at the age of 14, was rounded up by the Nazis in Budapest, sent to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, barely surviving before being liberated by the Americans in 1945. Fateless, based on his experiences in the camps, was published in 1992. Kertesz has adapted his book for the film, writing most of the screenplay.

Hungary, with its fascist government, was an ally of Germany, but in early 1944, as the war was going badly for Germany, the Hungarian government began to distance itself from the Nazis. Hitler reacted by invading and seizing control. The Hungarian Jews, who had largely escaped the mass roundups and murder of other European Jews, became the focus of Adolf Eichmann. Within 6 months, half of Hungary's approximately 500,000 Jews had been murdered, many at Auschwitz. Only the defeat of the German army and the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russians saved the other half. But many of the stronger looking Jews were sent to brutal forced labor camps. mostly in the west, and it was in those camps that Kertesz survived, but barely. It is clear that he would not have lived much longer had he not been liberated.

The film begins with Gyuri Kovacs, and his upper middle class family in their comfortable apartment in Budapest. All nicely dressed, but all with yellow stars sewn on their clothing. The father has just been ordered to report to a labor camp. so desperately tries to sell his business to his manager to provide for his family. Hungarian Jewish children, by this time, could not attend school, so many had jobs working in industries. Gyuri works in a brick factory on the outskirts of Budapest. One day, on his way to work, his bus is stopped, and a policeman tells the passengers that "anyone with a yellow star must get off". Thus begins his ordeal, which continues for days with other Jews held, without food or water, until they finally end up in one of those box cars, freezing and still starving. The unloading scene is chilling, and that familiar and terrible gate is seen in the background. The director begins the film in full color, but from when Gyuri is arrested, the colors begin to fade, so that the trip to Auschwitz and most of the rest of the film is done in blacks and grays.

Fateless has been praised, but also criticized for the same reason as the novel, because it attempts to depict not only the horrors but the beauty that Kertesz occasionally experienced during his brutal year in the camps. That hour at end of day, after work, until evening lineup, was usually unstructured. Sometimes he would see a beautiful cloud formation. Or rarely, find a small chunk of meat in his soup. These were his thin, very thin, slices of beauty. And which helped keep him alive. He is greatly helped by other prisoners, from the beginning, when someone behind him in the selection line at Auschwitz tells him to say that he is 16, which saves his life. An older, experienced prisoner, also from Budapest, takes him under his wing, insisting that he wash himself every day, save a small amount of food each time, and do everything possible to stay alive. When Gyuri faints after standing in formation for half a day, the others pick him up and hold him upright until the formation is dismissed. Gyuri is injured, and again the other prisoners make sure he is sent to the clinic. Gyuri lives, in good part because of this care. Many of the sequences are familiar and horrible, but in an understated way. Sometimes the scenes have a beauty to them. There is very little dialog here. Many of Gyuri thoughts are narrated, and are probably taken directly from the book. I don't want to describe the ending, only to say it was unexpected for me.

When nondocumentary films about the Holocaust began appearing a number of years ago, I was uneasy because I felt they trivialized, almost by necessity, the horror. Films have become better, and I wonder if some of them are intended as the film makers' attempt to say Kaddish for those murdered. By the same token, do we, or should we see these films, which are often painful, as our own expression of Kaddish? In addition to experiencing great art. I believe so. Fateless is an authentic witness, beautifully done, very powerful and painful, and absolutely worth seeing. I hope you will see on the big screen.

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