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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.