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-...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.