by Tony Medley
“Fateless” is exceptional. For
anyone who wants to know what living through the Holocaust was like, this
is the movie.
In 1997, a particularly
irritating film, “Life is Beautiful,” made the rounds and it was lionized.
I thought it deplorable. It demeaned the Holocaust by showing life in
extermination camps as relatively benign, sort of like “Hogan’s Heroes”
demeaned the suffering endured by those in Nazi POW camps. Sure, “Life”
was a heartwarming story of a father’s love and sacrifice for his son. But
it could have done so and shown a much more accurate presentation of what
life was really like in the camps and for the victims.
That’s what “Fateless” does.
Based on screenwriter Imre Kertész’s autobiographical novel, it is a
brutal, no-holds-barred, telling of what life was like through the eyes of
a 14-year-old Jewish boy, Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy), who is swept off the
streets of Budapest in 1944 and condemned to life in the concentration
camps. One of the many things that sets this apart from other Holocaust
films is the cinematography of Lajos Koltai, who makes his directorial
debut. The film is shot in color, but it emphasizes the bleakness of
Gyuri’s’ life by showing much of the film in color that is so muted it
might as well be in black and white.
While, due to his youth, Gyuri
is relatively dispassionate throughout the film, we see him slowly descend
into a dehumanized being, living day to day, not even trying very hard to
survive, just going with the flow. The way Gyuri is picked up to be
delivered to the camp is horrifying in its seeming innocuity, another
stark example of the banality of evil. There is no brutal roundup, but it
happens with slow suddenness. Although done without urgency, the viewer
knows that Gyuri is headed for oblivion, swept from his mother and
stepmother without notice.
This is a long movie, 140
minutes. While I don’t think any movie has any business exceeding 90
minutes, the length of this film has a purpose. It allows the audience to
participate in the increasing agony and forlorn nature of life in a
There were some surprising
occurrences in this movie that opened my eyes. Gyuri kept being moved
from camp to camp. I had thought camps like Auschwitz and Buchenwald were
extermination camps, so I don’t understand why Gyuri is moved from one to
another. Late in the movie he is taken to what looks like a camp hospital
for treatment. In addition to treatment, he is allowed to be cleaned, to
sleep alone in a bed and be cared for. Why would an extermination camp
have a camp hospital? Wouldn’t they work them to the point of starvation
and exhaustion and then gas them? At various points in the film Gyuri and
his companions hang out together. Was security so lax in the camps that
this was possible?
These things bothered me enough
to ask Mark Urman, Head of U.S. Theatrical for THINKFilm, the U. S.
distributor if they were literary license. He responded acerbically, “This
is all accurate and based on actual experience, and corroborated by other
similar accounts, memoirs, and historical research,” adding, “Imre Kertész
IS NOT James Frey.” I guess, in addition to losing Oprah, poor James can’t
count on THINKFilm to distribute any film version of his now thoroughly
discredited bestseller. Since these scenes are apparently based on fact, I
guess we have to accept them, but they still seem inconsistent with the
Final Solution. Frankly, I remain dubious.
Although this is an outstanding
film, and one I heartily recommend, the size of the audience indicates
that I am not the only one who has had a surfeit of Holocaust films. I saw
it on opening night, a Friday showing at 8:00 p.m. There couldn’t have
been many more than 25 people in the theater. Contrasted with the abundant
Holocaust films, how many films have there been about the Japanese
bestiality to the people they conquered in World War II? I can think of
two, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “King Rat” (1965). Neither
showed the unspeakable brutality of the Japanese, personified by the Rape
of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and their subjugating hundreds of
thousands of women into forced prostitution, calling them, “comfort
women.” Two movies, neither of which are particularly damning, vs.
hundreds of Holocaust movies. If they haven’t yet learned it from the
marketplace, it’s time filmmakers declared a moratorium on Holocaust
January 29, 2006