Staying Afloat

LAJOS KOLTAI'S ‘FATELESS'

Some of the most poignant ironies in literature occur in scenes where a child tries to understand the bizarre behavior of adults. Why does my lovable nurse Peggotty turn grouchy when my pretty mother strolls with the handsome stranger Mr. Murdstone? questions little David Copperfield. Why is father quarrelling with our relatives on account of this Parnell person? wonders young Stephen Dedalus mutely. These scenes are ironic because the reader understands more than the hero does, but since the protagonist is so inexperienced and helpless, the protectiveness that the reader feels informs the irony with tenderness.

In Fateless, the film adapted by Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz from his 1975 novel and directed by Lajos Koltai, poignant irony and sheer horror play a duet. Trying to understand adult sex and politics may be tough enough for Masters Copperfield and Dedalus, but how much more difficult to understand why part of the adult world is trying to kill you. Fourteen-year-old Gyuri, a Hungarian Jew sent to Auschwitz (and later Buchenwald), is handicapped in the struggle for survival by his placid reasonableness and the reasonableness he wrongly imputes to adults. During the early days of occupation, he doesn’t mind wearing the yellow star that identifies him as a Jew because (a) he is, in fact, a Jew, and (b) the star is kind of a cool accessory hanging there on the lapel of his overcoat. When, at a teen get-together, his pretty neighbor screams that she feels psychologically undermined by her pariah status as a Jew, Gyuri quietly counters that being a Jew is a happenstance of birth, and why spoil the party by making such a fuss?

Soon after, caught in a roundup of Jewish boys by a Hungarian policeman under Nazi orders, Gyuri is sure he’ll be part of a rough-and-ready boys club gladly working on road construction projects to keep the Germans content until the American and Russian soldiers arrive to liberate Hungary. (The time is late 1944, when rumors of Germany’s disarray were already spreading.) While waiting with the boys for the transport to the camp, the cop signals with his eyes to several of the boys that they should sneak away. Some do but not Gyuri. No one will get him to shirk his responsibilities! Why is this policeman behaving so disgracefully?

But once he arrives at Auschwitz, Gyuri catches on fast and quite soon comes to the conclusion that he can be killed anywhere, anytime. This dreadfully simplifies the world for him, and he plods through quotidian misery with the same placid air that he brought to his precamp experience while keeping his eyes open for the main chance, the extra gulp of water, the spare slice of bread. He never becomes a wheeler-dealer (who has the energy for that on a prisoner’s diet?), but he always understands what is at stake. What we see is a fragile body floating in a deadly mere, and though the body does not flail or kick, it unobtrusively arches and bends and twists to stay afloat. The effect is of serene horror.

All this is staged with most delicate craftsmanship by Koltai, a master cinematographer making his directorial debut. The early scenes, in which Gyuri’s family prepares for what everybody believes will be a trying but not lethal time, are photographed with a sort of black-and-peach-and-white palette-all other colors are banished or muted. This gives the scenes of farewells, hurried business conferences, parental admonitions, etc., a sweet and nervous melancholy. Once the boy is in the death camp, a steely black-and-white takes over, reinforcing the stark life-and-death choices prevailing there. But color keeps peeping through at key moments: serene colors when orthodox Jews say Kaddish; gruesome blood-red and putrefying green for a close-up of Gyuri’s infected leg; the rose color of some blankets under which the boy rediscovers the feeling of comfort while resting in an infirmary.

This pinpoint use of color may remind us of the moment in Schindler’s List when the hero spots a little girl in a red coat fleeing the decimation of the Cracow ghetto. That dab of red appearing on an otherwise black-and-white canvas conveyed enough shock to convince us that Schindler’s conscience was being ignited, but it also came across as cinematically clever, even virtuosic. By contrast, the colors of Fateless subtly infiltrate the predominant black and white without startling us; they function like string instruments in a symphony gradually rising to support a theme rather than a trumpet announcing one. Throughout Fateless, Koltai keeps overt drama in check because this isn’t a work of startling heroism but a narrative of dogged endurance, petty negotiations, and vitalizing compassion. We’re never on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if the hero survives since his narration on the soundtrack has already assured us of his survival. And the deaths that continually take place around him aren’t given horrific or sorrowing emphasis. People just disappear and you surmise, with Gyuri, that they have died. It is not just the banality of evil that Fateless portrays but the banality of mortality in the death camps. Thus, when the boy sharing a cot with Gyuri in the infirmary expires, we see our hero’s face (but only in medium shot) register the death but there is no reverse shot of the corpse’s face. Almost immediately, Gyuri takes the dead boy’s dinner ration and gobbles it down.

Koltai has made all the other artistic elements of the movie support the feeling of serene horror and not-quite-evaporated hope. Ennio Morricone’s music is rich and plangent but Koltai uses it sparingly. It swells at key moments but is then banished for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. The music helps us to empathize with Gyuri but never dictates what we must feel. The acting, especially Marcell Nagy in the lead, operates the same way: vivid portrayals by everyone but we scarcely ever feel we’re watching acting.

I could detect no fissure in the direction and only one flaw and one (unavoidable) limitation in Ketesz’s marvelous screenplay. The flaw: the boys in the round-up aren’t individualized to the extent they are in the book. When Gyuri later spots one in the camp and calls, “Hey, pretty boy!” we can’t be aware, as the book’s readers are, that the nickname attached itself because of the boy’s confidence with girls. Thus, a sad irony is lost because the same boy now seems robbed of all confidence and even seems catatonic.

The limitation: the first-person narration on the soundtrack carries over only snippets (though well-chosen ones) of Kertesz’s prose. I sympathize with the decision to transform the prose into visual storytelling, but it was the first-person prose that, in its patient rationalizing of the craziness around Gyuri, conveyed the boy’s embattled reasonableness.

Nevertheless, the subversive quality of the boy’s thinking in the closing pages of the novel, is here powerfully felt, both in the visualization and in the dialogue. Gyuri, rescued by the Americans and exploring his old neighborhood, refuses to monumentalize his experience or even to sum it up in any facile way. He bridles at the words of an inquiring journalist who calls the camps the “seventh circle of hell.” Gyuri knows that earth and human beings are bad enough and don’t need otherworldly epithets to evoke their evil. He has undergone very earthly horrors but has also received very earthly compassion, especially from the inmate Bandi Citrom, a sort of saintly tough guy. He refuses to have had a “fate” (that is, a doom) because he knows that things happen because other things have not happened but might have happened if people had acted differently at key moments. For this honesty, one critic wrote that Gyuri was “in denial.” But Gyuri isn’t in denial; he’s simply denying himself the banal comfort of banal rhetoric. The entire movie dispenses with it, too. Fateless is high, humane art.

This movie became available on DVD shortly after its theatrical release. I saw it both in a theater and on a disc rented from Netflix. Libraries and film rental stores might be intimidated into stocking it.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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