Life Isn't Beautiful

Washington City Paper | February 3, 2006
What I discovered in Auschwitz,” said Hungarian writer Imre Kertész during his 2002 Nobel acceptance speech, “is the human condition, the endpoint of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his 2,000-year-old moral and cultural history.” That’s another way of saying, I guess, that the Holocaust is too large and deep a subject ever to be exhausted—or even fully comprehended. There is room enough in it for Primo Levi and Roberto Benigni, Claude Lanzmann and Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski and Arthur Miller, and, indeed, anybody who cares to contemplate it.

So what explains the groan I heard as I braced myself for the film version of Kertész’s semiautobiographical novel Fateless? I could pretend someone else groaned, but there’s no use dodging: It was me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the importance of bearing witness. I just don’t believe that moral imperative is the same as aesthetic imperative. And aesthetically, each new Holocaust account faces the formidable task of adding to an already rich body of work.

Does Fateless clear the bar? Yes, but in a paradoxical way—by pretending that the bar isn’t there. It tells the story of the Holocaust as if it hadn’t been told before and, by focusing on the experiences of a single, rather unremarkable teenager, it manages to make the whole story, in flashes, new. Relatively modest in scope and low-key in execution, Fateless isn’t a great film, not transcendent or definitive—merely true, in the deepest non-“truthiness” sense of the word.

It’s 1944, and the European war is a year from being over, but in the streets of Budapest, it’s just beginning for Jewish residents such as Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy), a prosperous, tousled-haired 14-year-old whose father has just been forced to sell off his business and report to a “labor camp.” Within weeks, Gyuri himself is dragged off a bus and herded onto the train for Auschwitz, where he quickly masters “the simple secret of the universe: I could be killed anywhere, at any time.”

He’s stripped down to a number—64921—and transported first to Buchenwald, then to Zeitz, a relatively small camp that lacks the crematoriums of the larger facilities but still offers all the other accoutrements of Hell. In this daily round of labor, sadism, and starvation, new rules spring into being: Always keep one piece of bread in your pocket, no matter how hungry you are. When your bunkmate dies, don’t be too quick to tell anyone—you can eat his soup for him. Gyuri finds a protector, a tough, brotherly inmate named Bandi (Aron Dimény), but nothing can keep his body and spirit from wasting away. With U.S. troops pushing forward to liberate the camps, it becomes only a question of time: Can he stay alive for another day? For another hour?

There are no Life Is Beautiful antics in Fateless, no Schindler’s-esque interventions, and Kertész, who adapted his own book for the screen, is too proud to ask for our tears. He just wants us to feel the texture of hopelessness. If anything, the film goes out of its way to avoid the cathartic releases of other Holocaust works. We get only flashes of pathos: a married couple wrenched apart by Nazi guards; a young boy, separated from his friends, calmly waiting in line for extermination. And there are moments of weird dislocation: a kindly Budapest policeman playing games with his teenage charges even as he’s packing them off to the camps, a woman arriving on the Auschwitz train applying lipstick just before stepping onto the platform.

These scenes pass in and out of the frame, but for most of Fateless’ 140 minutes, the lens rarely strays too far from Gyuri. Young Nagy isn’t yet much of an actor—he can’t pull off Kertész’s elegiac voice-overs or the nuances of the film’s closing sequences—but his face is a ravishing canvas for suffering. When we first meet Gyuri, he’s so prosaically hormonal that, in the act of praying for his departed father, he keeps glancing toward a pretty girl. As director Lajos Koltai slowly drains the color from the film’s palette, Nagy’s hollow eyes become our portal into the monochromatic world of the camps. Indeed, you could argue that the mere sight of Gyuri’s shorn locks and etiolated limbs conveys as much of the Holocaust experience as reams of testimony.

Whether that’s true is, of course, endlessly debatable, but for all of Kertész’s textual glossing, the movie’s most powerful moments are wordless—in particular, a sequence of camp inmates forced to stand at attention from sunup to sundown. The camera glides along their exhausted bodies as Ennio Morricone’s voice-and-strings score, echoing Górecki’s great Symphony No. 3, pours over them like a balm. In this moment, Fateless becomes what Kertész might never have expected and perhaps didn’t want: a deeply sensuous work.

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