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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Honore Daumier’

Accepting A Fateless Fate: A Holocaust Film To End All Holocaust Films

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

Fateless (2006)

Directed by: Lajos Koltai

Produced by: Andras Hamori

Written by: Imre Kertész

Opened – January 6 in New York

Running Time: 140 minutes



One of Honore Daumier’s greatest works shows a troubled man sitting at a window. The caption loosely translates as “O moon, inspire me,” and the man looks out his window at the moon very much in need of inspiration. This 19th century piece is a lithograph, which means the shadows look particularly black and velvety, while the whites – like the moon – shine brilliantly. So dreary and depressing is the man’s room and body that the viewer can just make out colors and details beyond the minimal forms that Daumier renders. That is perhaps Daumier’s greatest strength – his ability to create such devastation with black and white that the picture seems to unfold in color, in sound, in smells.

Lajos Koltai’s new movie Fateless (2006), based on Imre Kertész’s novel by the same name, has a flavor of Daumier in it. It relies almost exclusively on black and white with some browns, but viewers can all but smell the filth, taste the dirt, tears, and blood, and add the colors like a horrifying paint-by-number.

Previously in The Jewish Press (10/23/2002), Michael Skakun wrote of Kertész’s novel as refusing “to indulge in rhetorical self-dramatization, a flaw that commonly mars accounts of Holocaust survival.” To Skakun, Kertész does not seek an uplifting message or any other emotion; instead, he “remains true to the unnameable experience itself, often the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. It is far easier to indulge in emotional grandstanding and metaphysical protest than to evoke the daily grit of a reality that defies description.”

Skakun’s observation applies to Koltai’s film as well. Strictly speaking, I can’t and shouldn’t review this film – not without immediately casting accuracy out the window. Kertész says he is exploring the inexplicable and naming the unnameable, and an effort to address such pursuits with a critical vocabulary appears a paradox, twice over. But in a sense, Koltai manages to find a name, precisely in his insistence, that there is no name. That move creates an open space in which criticism might enter.

The main character, a 14-year-old Hungarian boy named Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy), is abducted by a policeman on his way to work, and herded into a makeshift prison-barn with all the other yellow star bearers. The stunt, which initially appeared simply as a cruel cat and mouse game, lands the group in concentration camps. Gyuri manages to survive the camps in the same way Primo Levi does, via the infirmary. (Of course Levi is real, Koves is not.)

But the proof of Gyuri’s tale lies in the pudding. After his camp is liberated by the Americans, Gyuri finds himself in a series of conversations that befit the “Absurdist Theater”. Enter man. Man asks Gyuri if he ever saw a gas chamber. Gyuri answers frankly that he wouldn’t be alive, had he seen one. The man replies, “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know.” Another Holocaust denier is born. Blackout.

Next scene. Gyuri stands on the bus; he has no ticket. The driver demands a ticket, to which Gyuri says he has none. So buy one, the driver insists. Gyuri says he has no money and he points to his leg. He tells the driver his leg hurts. The driver can see that he is still in his striped prison garb, but it takes another passenger who offers to buy Gyuri’s ticket to allow him to remain. The man asks Gyuri if the Nazis did dreadful things to him. “Naturally,” Gyuri answers. “It depends what you call dreadful.” The man is indignant, demanding how Gyuri can call something so unnatural “natural.” Gyuri is silent. Blackout.

Gyuri finally finds his relatives (his father never returns), and he is then questioned by them and by his neighbor – his childhood friend Annamaria – on the stairs. To them, Gyuri meditates, “Maybe, I don’t even exist.” “I died once,” he says, “I can’t be angry anymore.” But perhaps his most provocative line is his assertion that, “lying in wait for me like an unavoidable trap, is happiness.” The next time he is asked by someone about the camps, Gyuri says “I should talk about the happiness of the camps.”

But to call such a comment heretical, is to miss the point, entirely. Koltai’s effort in this film is, effectively, to critique Holocaust films, or more precisely, perhaps, to create a new sort. There are no answers in this film, which asserts that there is no hell (at least not in this world), but there were concentration camps. The film refuses to allow evil to hide behind fancy language – even the term “evil” itself – because such language distances the destruction from us and allows it to be classified as “other”, instead of something deep within us.

Early on, Gyuri describes the “simple secret” of his universe as, “I could be killed any time, anywhere.” This reality to Gyuri – this tangible, imperative reality – outweighs any anger or blame. And true to the film’s name, this realization on Gyuri’s part comes from his sense of fate.

Before arriving at the concentration camps, the guard who originally abducted Gyuri gives him a chance to flee. As the prisoners are marching – ultimately to be judged in the infamous line – they are forced to wait for a passing bus. Many who are “in the know” sneak off from the group and run, and the guard even looks Gyuri in the eye and motions with his head that Gyuri should take off. Gyuri looks him in the eye and stays.

Almost verbatim, an American soldier who liberates Gyuri’s camp tells him that he should not go home but, instead, flee to Switzerland where he will be embraced. Then, he suggests, Gyuri should come to America and go to college and study, like a normal kid. Gyuri mutters something about his father, and is on his way home to seek out his family.

Gyuri learns the lesson of fate quite quickly, and his transformation from Gyuri to number 64921 (“vier-und-sechzig, neun, ein-und-zwanzig) and then back to Gyuri again is a powerful Bildungsroman or tale of coming of age. And in that coming of age, Gyuri and the other prisoners of the concentration camp closely resemble Daumier’s forelorn figure. At one point in the camps, the inmates are asked if there are performers in their midst, who might entertain while the trains are being prepared. One group rises and sings “On a moonlit night, what does a girl dream, that her prince will come…”

Like Daumier’s pitiful, lonely, sickly man looking up to the moon for inspiration, the camp inmates look to the clouds and the moon for inspiration, for a dream to cling on to. So powerfully does Gyuri cling to that moon, that he manages – however astonishingly – to call it happiness, even when he leaves the camps and begins to reclaim his freedom. This artistic move, in one respect, critiques other artistic efforts to turn the Holocaust into a symbol. But in a far more interesting way, Fateless raises important questions by exploring a fate that is “fateless” and a name that is “unnameable”. It is not a contradiction. It is a powerful drive to explore the Holocaust in artistic form while trying, at all costs, to avoid an inherent minefield of superficially pious messages that have clung tenaciously to the perennial question of Holocaust art.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

The Siddur As Coloring Book – Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen’ At The Jewish Museum Of Maryland

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

The Eighteen: Blessings from The Heart of Jewish Worship
Showing through August 28th, 2005
The Jewish Museum
15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore

The aesthetic buzzards have been following him disappointed for years. He was easy to pick out trudging through uncharted territory, alone. Everyone else heeded the “Beware, Herein Lies Jewish Art” signs, and the warnings, “Artists Interested in Loving Publics Need Not Apply,” so to the buzzards it was a no-brainer: Archie Rand would surely fall, and they wanted to be there to enjoy his demise. But not only did he not fall prey to anonymity and irrelevance, he has laid out a clearly demarcated path for others to follow. In his own way, he has effectively revolutionized the way the rest of us view Jewish art, heretofore an endangered species until Rand nurtured and raised it to fruition.

Rand’s new exhibit “The Eighteen: Blessings from the Heart of Jewish Worship” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland features a series of 18 paintings exploring the silent prayer, the Amidah. The series reminds me of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant (BFG), who religiously covers his nightly beat of children’s dream distribution with a trumpet, a good sense of time and a high-speed gallop that would put any BMW to shame. Quite typically, Dahl explores the bizarre notion of containing a personal dream experience in a jar.

If Dahl lent the giant a skullcap and sent him galloping to make a Minyan (he already has the Long Black Cloak), one wonders what sorts of thoughts and supplications could the BFG appropriate with his trumpet: what would they look like sitting in his jars? Well, they would look something like Archie Rand’s work. The paintings can only be described as the product of putting art and Judaism into a blender and hitting “high,” and it takes a singular man with a top screwed on properly to ensure that the experiment does not simply make a mess of it all.

Technically, the series includes what is effectively the 19th blessing (“And as to the Gossipers”), and it opts to exclude the final blessing of the prayer, but Rand manages to survey the entire prayer nonetheless. Where the Amidah is a private and a public enterprise-praying individuals recite it quietly, the leader repeats it aloud-the paintings are very quiet and shy initially, but Rand is also the service leader, and his voice booms loudly and clearly in his writings in the catalog that explain the work.

Rand has a long history of this sort of gutsy art. His “The Nineteen Diaspora Paintings” – which told an operatic story that mapped Biblical stories over a comic book, “pulp” template, all arranged within the Amidah apparatus – hung at Hebrew Union College (October, 2004 – January, 2005), and “Archie Rand: Iconoclast” – which contained his piece based on Nachmanides’ letter to his son, and his “Sixty Paintings from the Bible,” amongst other pieces – hung at the Yeshiva University Museum (February – August, 2004). In her preface in the catalog of “The Nineteen,” curator Laura Kruger wrote, “Archie Rand has never been timid. His most recent workdemands our reconsideration of Jewish scripture and its relevance to our moral decisions.”

Kruger is quite right in this estimation of the oomph and the immediacy in the work, and her comparison of Rand and 19th Century French cartoonist Honore Daumier, though risky is quite telling in some ways: both artists employ a very bold, in-your-face style that is very accessible visually, while carrying enormous weight in its social criticism at the same time. To Rand’s credit, his work insists upon comparison to the great masters’ work, and though the comparisons feel uncomfortable and possibly even sacrilegious, somehow they are imperative nonetheless.

Simply reading this article will not do, as far as understanding Rand’s work goes. For works that rely so heavily on palette (the gallery walls are deep blue, and the paintings literally look as if they were on fire with bright, dancing colors), black and white reproductions simply will not arrive at an honest representation, and the catalog is stuffed with explanations that range from the Hassidic to the Kabbalistic to the philosophical to the simply personal, to attempt to make the paintings more accessible. I will not regurgitate the explanations of each piece, because viewers must read the catalog, and a cursory characterization of the texts will not do it justice. Also, the paintings are intended to be inaccessible and mysterious.

My favorite painting of the series, “2: You, Ado-shem, are mighty forever, etc.” has a yellow ochre feel about it. The surface is particular sculptural, and much of the paint sits on top of the canvas in a highly textured way that plants flowers and birds in the paint. The words of the second blessing, which underscores G-d’s power and role as reviver of the dead, appear in red in the middle of the larger circular motif. Two blue forms – a darker one atop the painting and a tint towards the bottom-slice through the composition suggesting rivers in a murky, yellow-brown desert. The central yellow ball cannot help but suggest a sun, and the fractured forms around it recall explosions or fireworks. What does this all mean with the words of the second blessing of The Eighteen scrawled across it? Does the image dictate the second blessing sufficiently on its own, and if so why does it need the words? And if it needs the words to identify it, what relation, if any, does the image have vis-à-vis the text?

Clearly, the flowers and birds suggest a feeling of life, and coupled with the circular motif, the work suggests a cyclic life pattern that includes death. This rotation follows the text that casts G-d as the reviver of the dead. Viewers can find such signs in every painting, but somehow the paintings are about the space around the literal motifs. There is an embarrassment or at least a cumbersome feel to the literal objects, as if Rand needed them for some compositional reason but wished that he could keep the paintings entirely abstract. And the greatest strength of “The Eighteen” is its abstraction; the abstract planes represent the areas where the interpretation – kavanah – resides.

This abstraction-as-kavanah reflects Rand’s Jewishness (too much Jewishness, says Norman Kleeblatt) and postmodern identity as a painter: “My insistence that they are Jewish makes them Jewish, which is a far distance from begging for them to be Jewish.” And he has needed much insisting, caught as he is between a Jewish audience that shuns his secularness and a secular audience that shuns his Jewishness. Like the Jews caught between the Egyptian missiles and the threatening waves of the Sea of Reeds, he needs a miracle, and the miracle comes through his paintings, which “compensate for the inability of English to get at the Hebrew textThese paintings are for people who feel Jewish, and I am not kidding,” Rand says.

And Rand ultimately makes his own Siddur, providing an aesthetic translation that does approach the Hebrew text. He is such a successful translator, because he knows to keep a balance between objects and a more transcendent, abstract realm. And in a sense, where the Baroque painters often seemed fixated on painting portraits of cherubs and other lofty spiritual beings, Rand opts for the less idolatrous design problem: sitting Kavanah down as a model and painting her portrait.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-siddur-as-coloring-book-archie-rands-the-eighteen-at-the-jewish-museum-of-maryland/2005/05/18/

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