It's not often that a book or a movie makes me cry. A few weeks ago I watched Fateless, a film that brought tears to my eyes. For quite some time afterwards I could not get over the sepia tinted images of melancholy, gloom and suffering. Even more difficult to shake off was the impression made by the detached incomprehension of the young protagonist caught in the violent maelstrom.
Fateless is based on a novel by Imre Kertesz, a Nobel Prize winning Hungarian author who spent a year in Nazi concentration camps as a young boy. The movie is the account of one year in the life of fourteen year old Gyuri (Gyorgy ) Koves (some have speculated, Kertesz himself) after being shipped to Auschwitz, later shifted to Buchenwald and finally to Zeitz, a lesser known concentration camp in 1944. Through it all we experience the young boy's plight not as mere viewers but often as "Gyuri," the teenager who has been transported from a life of middle class predictability to one of unfamiliar, unprecedented horror which is in equal parts, carefully planned out regimental cruelty and random violence. As Primo Levi pointed out in his brilliant books about Auschwitz, one needs some distance in time and place from carnage and degradation to truly recognize the scars left by past traumas. With proximity to pain, over time, mindless brutality and soul sapping privation can begin to look routine and mundane. And tragedy is multiplied many times over when children's fates are shaped by the corruption of the adult soul.
A book or movie about the Holocaust may be expected to be filled with vivid sounds and sights of horror. But the narrative in Fateless is spare and largely devoid of excessive emotions. A series of bleak images, as seen through the eyes of young Gyuri - of emaciation, loss of dignity, proximity to disease and death, have the effect of putting us alongside him on the ground. Although there is little or no Nazi iconography to be seen throughout the film and the enforcers themselves are rarely on the screen, the presence of the Nazis and their murderous philosophy is the palpable backdrop. The film focuses on the pathetic and disoriented inhabitants of the death camps - the exhausting drudgery, senseless punishments and Gyuri's rapidly deteriorating physical condition. Fateless is a chronicle of dreary events in which a piece of meat surfacing unexpectedly in a pitiful bowl of soup is a stunning event, where one can lie quietly next to a dead body in a filthy hospital bed day after day in order to receive the extra ration doled out to the dead man by mistake, where amidst utter isolation and hopelessness people find moments of respite to joke and sing. The individual instances of loss, pain and indignities suffered add up to an atrocity of monumental proportions.
There are many striking cinematic moments in Fateless - flashes of hope and confusion that are heartbreaking in their simplicity and because with our 20/20 historical hindsight we know the end results. The policeman who rounded up Gyuri with other young boys to be transported to Auschwitz, signals secretly for Gyuri to run away at a traffic stop while the group is being herded to a holding station. Ignorant and unable to imagine what lies ahead, Gyuri stays. The boys, separated from their families, plan and plot with childish glee in the train to stay together when they reach their destination. A woman touches up her lips with lipstick as the sealed train pulls into Auschwitz.
Gyuri's "normal" emotions resurface when he returns to Budapest after the liberation of the camps. He feels anger, frustration and confusion when upon his return he finds that those who had evaded a fate similar to his own, even members of his family and friends, do not want to hear what went on in the concentration camps. They welcome him back but tell him "It is all in the past. The Nazis have been defeated," when he wants to talk and ask questions. The most heartbreaking scene of the film occurs at the end - not inside the hellish confines of the camp but in freedom, at a street corner in Budapest in approaching dusk. Gyuri leaves the apartment of some old friends who are delighted to see him and offer him his favorite dishes to relish but don't want to hear about Auschwitz, Buchenwald or Mauthausen. Rebuffed, Gyuri leaves to go and look for his estranged mother. (His father, another victim of the camps, did not return) He stops on the street outside the apartment and thinks back on his life in the camp which now seems less confusing to him than the freedom outside. He recalls wistfully that the year spent in the camps was not one of just horror and suffering; there were "magic hours" there too. He thinks back on his favorite hour, just after dinner, a respite from the day's backbreaking labor and indignities, ["which I waited for and loved most in the camp"] when he would joke and sing with his fellow prisoners. It is at this wrenching moment that we realize that for Gyuri, the camps are not the past. They are his searing and present reality and they will remain so for the rest of his life.
(Author Imre Kertesz said in his 2002 Nobel Lecture : "... nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz. In my writings the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense.")
Fateless is an extraordinary film made all the more remarkable by its ascetic treatment of human suffering. The cast is wonderful. The character of Gyuri is brought to life by the hauntingly beautiful and innocent face of actor Marcell Nagy. If you have 2 hours and 20 minutes to devote to a really good movie, do try Fateless. For more on the story, see the New York Times review here.