Twist of Fate

Lajos Koltai's adaptation of a Nobel Prize-winning memoir takes a unique look at life in a concentration camp.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 10, 2006

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Wheel of misfortune: Marcell Nagy plays a teenage boy who lives through several concentration camps.

Includes: Interview with Kertész, making-of
You'll Like It If You Like: Holocaust dramas, coming-of-age stories, world cinema.

What did it feel like to live through the Holocaust? It's so hard to imagine, to wrap your hands around the enormity of it, that movies often just flood out the events with melodrama: the kitsch of Life Is Beautiful, the weepy histrionics of Sophie's Choice, the hokey hero worship of Schindler's List, the besides-the-point razzle-dazzle of Cabaret.

The best Holocaust movies keep a laser focus on small-scale experiences-people living their everyday lives, caught in the middle of events they can't control or understand. From the devastating Shoah, which led people back over the war's actual grounds, to Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning The Pianist, the genre has struggled to replace sentimentality and contrived nobility with a more stripped-down approach.

Fateless, based on the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, takes this style to its furthest extreme, following an ordinary teenager in Budapest through the concentration camps, and finally back to what's left of his regular life.

There's nothing special or sparkling about 14-year-old Gyuri, an ordinary kid with a crush on the girl next door. Watchful and introspective, he doesn't think much of it when his father is sent to a forced labor camp-or when he and a bunch of other Jews are pulled off a bus as they're headed to work.

Even as he gets shipped to Ausch-witz, then Buchenwald, then a smaller camp, Gyuri's just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what he can to get through each day. Filmmaker Lajos Koltai doesn't ratchet up the melodrama-we don't see people shuffled off to die or women weeping for their lost children-and the film doesn't really develop any other characters or storylines.

We just hone in on the actual experience, and possibly no other movie has created such a vivid, detailed vision of everyday life in a concentration camp. Gyuri's experience feels both precise and hallucinatory-filmed in a strange yellowish sepia, with shafts of light slicing through the frames, it plays like a fever dream of the real, a middle ground between day-to-day experiences and distorted memories.

Like Kertész's book, the movie saves its most devastating twist for the end, as Gyuri survives and returns to the wreckage of his city only to find himself nostalgic for the camps. "I was filled with a sharp, painful and helpless feeling," he says in the closing voiceover. "I felt homesick. Yes, in a certain sense, life there was cleaner and simpler."

"People only ask about the horrors," he continues, "whereas I should talk about the happiness of the camps next time, if they ask. If they ask at all. And if I don't forget myself."

The Family Stone

If you want to get your money's worth, this Christmastime family dramedy offers you four DVDs for the price of one:

A home-for-the-holidays comedy about an extended family laughing through their tears and crying through their jokes.

A traditional Syd Fieldian three-act journey about an uptight woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) in a bun and a suit who learns to let her hair down (yes, literally).

A Shakespearean (or Smiles of a Summer Night-ian) romantic comedy in which people matched up with the wrong partners find the right ones.

A touching melodrama about a difficult matriarch coming to terms with the end of her life, combined with an affecting portrait of her long-term marriage to a dim but affectionate husband.

You'd think these stories would mesh, as in other family/holiday/ensemble extravaganzas like Hannah and Her Sisters and Home for the Holidays. Instead they feel like ill-fitting shards of different stories, jammed together and jutting out.

The cramming-in of so many people and stories leaves them all gasping for air. People who don't know each other conveniently fall in love in a heartbeat. Personalities change instantly or aren't established at all-like the mother (Diane Keaton) who's supposedly abrasive and hard to handle, though we never see it except when people say it. Other characters hang forlornly around the edges, waiting for plot points that never arrive, like the brother who's both gay and deaf, and his African-American partner.

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Character Factors

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Moon Beams

Extra Credits