A Holocaust film that contemplates happiness
December 19, 2005
Lajos Koltai has been involved with more than his share of films relating to Nazism, the Holocaust and the fallout from Hitler’s Third Reich. As the regular cinematographer for leading Hungarian director István Szabó, Koltai, also a Hungarian, was behind the camera for Szabó’s films “Max,” “Taking Sides” and “Sunshine,” all from the last six years, and all of which provided an angle on the effects of Nazism on Europe.
Szabó’s three films were, as a whole, noteworthy for their complexity and ambiguity. “Max” looked at the young Hitler, when the Führer-to-be was still an aspiring though undistinguished artist. The 2002 film focused on the relationship between Hitler and a Jewish art dealer (played by John Cusack) trying to convince his student that art makes for a better life than politics. “Taking Sides,” from 2001, examined the story of a real-life German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose status as Hitler’s favored musician may have been reluctant, or, conversely, may have been calculated to keep him safe and comfortable. The 1999 epic “Sunshine” traced the history of a Hungarian Jewish family through three generations, a period that included anti-Semitism, conversion to Christianity and periods in the Nazi concentration camps.”Fateless,” the directorial debut by the 59-year-old Koltai, may even top Szabó’s trio for ambiguity. “Fateless” follows the hardships of a Budapest teenager, Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy), who witnesses his well-to-do father being deported to a labor camp. Before long, Gyuri finds himself on a nightmarish train ride to the German concentration camps. The 14-year-old suffers the full litany of dehumanizing tortures. In scene after scene, we see Gyuri deprived of proper food and clothing, stuffed into an overcrowded bunkhouse, threatened and punished for such misdeeds as talking to fellow prisoners and succumbing to the mistreatment. In one memorable passage, Gyuri hides the fact that his bunkmate has died so he can help himself to the extra ration of food. The washed-out cinematography expertly conveys the emotional dreariness of this existence.Yet in the final minutes of “Fateless,” with Gyuri back in Budapest, the idea is introduced of the boy’s sense of happiness in the camps. “I had a feeling which was similar to happiness,” he reflects, as he wanders the streets of Budapest. Yes, there were moments of humanity in the camp. One older prisoner looked after Gyuri, giving him tips on physical and emotional survival. Gyuri even revealed that there was a moment of the day – when the sun was setting, indicating mealtime – that he looked forward to. That hardly seems to add up to happiness, but here is Gyuri, pondering happiness.
Koltai, who directed the film from the acclaimed 1975 novel by Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, advises that moviegoers must take into account Gyuri’s altered idea of happiness. The happiness of a teenager who has lost his father and his home, and witnessed horrific brutality, is not the same happiness as, say, someone on a ski vacation in Aspen.”He says, ‘I had a feeling which was similar to happiness,’ which is a very different thing than happiness,” said Koltai, by phone from New York. “Happiness is not his category.””Fateless” seems to have something to say about the indomitability of the human spirit. Koltai’s delivery of the message is obscure; the film invites contemplation and argument. But the director says that, if Gyuri could find an emotional kin to happiness in those most awful of circumstances, then there must be a part of the human soul that is safe from torture.
“There were moments in the camp, with other people, when he gets to eat, when the sun is setting beautifully – they are beautiful moments for a small kid like this,” he said. Koltai added that simply surviving the camps should not be seen as an unmitigated triumph. Gyuri may be alive, but his experience and memories won’t fade away soon. As if to underscore the lasting damage, on his return to Budapest, his former neighbors are discomfited by his presence; they send him off to search for his estranged mother.”He went back to the city, but not home. There is no home,” said Koltai. “He has no idea what the direction is. He has no future on that street he’s going down. Everyone is saying he should just go away. It’s: ‘What do I do now?'”Everyone thinks, you get home from the Holocaust, you are a winner. But you are not a winner. After the Holocaust, you are stripped down to ground zero.”
Koltai also intended the film to serve as a warning, especially for the young. “Showing this film for a young generation, they realize this is a fate that can happen with them,” he said. “This is a young boy, an appealing boy, who accidentally gets into the Holocaust. So my message is this can happen anytime, to anybody. Because the world is terrible. My message is, you should be ready for it.” The film’s style, of scenes fading in and out of existence, Koltai likens to making a concrete memorial, “like a statue of film, so as not to forget.”Despite the grimness of that message and the complexity of the film, “Fateless” has been warmly received. It was nominated for the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, and earned a pair of nominations, for composer Ennio Morricone and for cinematographer Gyula Pados, from the European Film Awards.”People often say, ‘Finally, you have the right picture about what happened there,'” said Koltai of reactions to the film, which has been screened at numerous festivals, including the prestigious ones in Toronto and Telluride. “I’ve never heard so many thanks.”
Koltai says, for an early 21st century European filmmaker concerned with serious material, the Holocaust is an almost unavoidable topic. About István Szabó, with whom he has worked for 26 years, Koltai said, “He was always thinking about the biggest traumas of Europe, between the two World Wars. It was impossible to go around those problems because you are always in those problems. It’s a question mark, again and again. The Holocaust problem, you can’t go around it.” Now that he has addressed that question mark in “Fateless,” Koltai can at least swerve around the topic for a moment. For the next project in his late-blooming directorial career, Koltai is looking for stories that are about humans, but not the Holocaust.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspen times.com