Saturday, August 26, 2006

FATELESS/SORSTALANSAG - one of the more sensitive treatments of the Holocaust

FATELESS is an outstanding feature film about the Holocaust. It is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nobel-prize-winning Hungarian author Imre Kersetz. He adapted the work for the screen himself and is responsible for a structure that some could find boring or unengaging. Instead of telling the story through flash-backs, or spicing up the narrative with melodramatic events, Kersetz keeps the story linear and simple. Over two hours we follow a fourteen year old Hungarian boy called György Köves. His father is sent to a labour camp and he is forced to work in a brick factory. One day he is rounded up by a kindly looking policeman and packed onto a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At every stage he is given small precious words of advice. He is told the German for "sixteen" so that he get himself out of Auschwitz and into a labour camp. There he grinds out the rest of the war. His tragedy is to have been born into an evil time and his punishment is to have to serve that time. To mark it, standing in a wet field all day until fainting from hunger.

This is what Kersetz wants to tell us. That there are no sweeping epic moments or emotional flights. There is dull perseverance and hatred. These are shown in tableaux form, one following the other with a kind of harrowing monotony. The impact is greater thanks to a universally good cast, a discreet score and some outstanding photography. Lajos Koltai may be a first-time director but he is a celebrated cinematographer and comes up with the ingenious method of slowly fading the movie from full colour in Budapest to sepia tints in the train to stark black and white as we reach the final camp. The changing colour is so slow you almost miss it, but hits you powerfully toward the end. It mirrors the slow change from little boy to ghost. Even when the camp in which György Köves is held is liberated and he returns to Budapest the film is still in black and white as if to signify that there can be no real return..

FATELESS is a profoundly painful and depressing film. The title itself refers to György Köves feeling that it is better to believe in nothing and to have no fate than to be a believing Jew who accepts the Holocaust as part of his fate of perpetual suffering. Every scene feels authentic, no doubt because Kersetz personally over-saw small details of the production design. I feel it is compulsary viewing in the same way as THE SORROW AND THE PITY and NIGHT AND FOG are compulsary viewing.

As an aside, I originally saw the movie back in January and recently watched the DVD for the first time - forcing it onto Doctor007 in the manner of a low-rent Woody Allen flick. I don't normally comment on DVD extras, but the DVD is well worth viewing because it contains an interview with Imre Kersetz in which he discusses why the film had to be structured as it was. But most interesting is his rant at the expense of Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST. I have always found SCHINDLER'S LIST to be problematic. Everything seemed so heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative. And finally, so optimistic! There is an anecdote I heard - I have no idea whether it is true - that Spielberg showed Kubrick a cut of Schindler's List eager for praise. Kubrick apparently told Spielberg that he had entirely missed the point: "The Holocaust was about 6 million Jews who were murdered. You chose to tell a story about 100 who were saved." Kersetz delivers one of the most articulate and scathing critiques of Schindler's List in his interview. He calls it inauthentic in its historical detail and imagined situations. But this is the least of its problems, according to Kersetz. The greatest charge is that it finds humanity in hell. You don't have to agree with him but it is fascinating to hear his critique....

FATELESS opened in Hungary, Germany and France in 2005. It opened in New York and the UK earlier in 2006 and was released on DVD this week. It opens in Denmark on September 1st, the Netherlands on September 7th and in Belgium on October 25th.

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