Saturday, June 30, 2007

37. Hungarian director Lajos Koltai's "Sorstalansag (Fateless)" (2005): A thought-provoking film on the Nazi horrors

Many directors have made acclaimed movies on the horrors of the Nazi perpetrated holocaust, the gas chambers, and the concentration camps. This work stands out as one of the very few intelligent films reflecting on the effect of the atrocities on those directly and indirectly affected, rather than a clever film milking the pathos of the tragic events. Here is a film that telescopes the tragedy beyond the World War II for the main character a teenage Jewish boy (and the viewer) to the post-war human interactions. Here is a film that does not stop as a celluloid memorial for the Jews, but makes one reflect on human behavior worldwide while facing similar horrors—the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia, the tragic ethnic cleansing of Muslims in post-Tito Yugoslavia, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur…the list goes on.

How does this film end up being different? The Nobel prize winning story alludes to camaraderie of the oppressed in concentration camps, prisons and other unusual bonding of strangers for survival. The 'free' world rarely provides that bonding. The film and the story are thus made up of two parts: the incarceration and the freedom. In the free world, a German asks the survivor if he ever saw the gas chambers and the honest answer is "no." And that comforts the guilty suspicion of the non-Jewish German.

Much of the film centers on the capturing the emotions of the boy, without spoken words. This might appear unusual but study the gradual use of shadows, the dirt, and the evidence of tears. The controlled bleached color prints add to the visceral visual power of the film. These are images that you will not forget even after you leave the theater (or switch off the Indian TV channel, as in my case)

There are sequences that suggest more than what is shown on screen. A guard takes an odd liking for the young boy and keeps staring at him instead of others, once in the suburbs of Budapest and then again in the concentration camp. The special care in the infirmary could allude to Nazi medical experiments. Delving on those details would have reduced the real strength of the film. It is easy for many whose fate was death in the camps. There are half dead men who refuse to accept their fate as they are carried away to the gas chambers. And there are young men fated to live and survive in a difficult inhospitable world and accept this as their fate and move on. They are the "fateless" few.

This work turned out to be remarkable because of the outstanding team behind it. The story and screenplay is by 2002 Nobel prize winner Imre Kertesz who won the prize a few years before the film was made. The story is semi-auto biographical The acclaimed Hungarian cinematographer turned director Lajos Koltai and Italian Ennio Morricone team up once again after the two weaved celluloid magic in The legend of 1900 (reviewed earlier in this blog). The camera is not with Koltai but Gyula Pados this time, but Koltai would have contributed to the photography. Another marvel of the film are the vocal renderings of Australian Lisa Gerrard (of Dead can dance) that alternate with pan pipes conducted by Morricone.

Three remarkable films on the Nazi atrocities evoked similar feelings for me: the outstanding 10-hour cinematic docudrama by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg Hitler-A film from Germany that led essayist Susan Sontag to write an equally outstanding critical essay on the film, Zoltan Fabri's The Fifth Seal (referring to the Bible's Revelations) the finest Hungarian film that needs to be seen more widely also based on a major Hungarian novel (by Ferenc Santa) and Istvan Szabo's touching mystical and allegorical Budapest Tales that said everything about the Nazi occupation without a shot of the concentration camps by portraying dislocated Jews, strangers to one another, coming together to put a symbolic trashed Budapest tramcar back on the rails far away from the city. Arguably these three films along with Fateless constitute the finest and the most accomplished body of cinema on the subject. If you prefer straight easy tear-jerkers try Steven Spielberg's films on the subject, Polanski's The Pianist, Benigni's Life is Beautiful or even Louis Malle's Au revoir, les Enfants—all good, acclaimed films but not quite in the same league.

P.S. At the Berlin Film Festival, Fateless lost out to two remarkable films I have seen that won the major awards: U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha from South Africa and Kong Que (reviewed earlier in this blog) from China. Like Fateless, the Chinese film was also the first directorial effort of an accomplished cinematographer.