CONVERSATIONS WITH THE GREAT MOVIEMAKERS OF HOLLYWOOD'S GOLDEN AGE AT THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE (Knopf)
MANY OF US HAVE reservations about the Holocaust as a subject for enacted films. Claude Lanzmann, who made the monumental documentary Shoah, said, "Fiction [about the Holocaust] is a transgression. I deeply believe that there are some things that cannot and should not be represented." Still, even if we too think that we believe this, when a Holocaust film is manifestly serious--one can almost say consecrated--it is hard to resist. Resistance can even be a kind of sloth.
Reservations thus fall away. FATELESS, an enacted film, is a pressing instance. It contains little that will be new to any informed viewer; yet it fascinates for all of its 140 minutes. Partly this is because the screenplay is by Imre Kertész, adapted by this Hungarian author from his novel of the same name. (Kertész, not quite incidentally, is a Nobel laureate.) The book is based on his own experiences beginning in German-occupied Budapest. In 1944, when he was fourteen, Kertész, who is Jewish, was deported to Auschwitz and was subsequently moved from the death camp to labor camps. He was liberated in 1945 and returned to Budapest. This outline of his own story is also an outline of the film. So we have here a work grounded in fact that has gone through two transformative artistic phases, fiction and film. It is at least an exception to, if not a rebuttal of, Lanzmann's statement.
We rely on the makers of this film--or any film on this subject--to use art as service, not exploitation; and throughout any such picture, we can be nervous about sentimentality, facileness. Fateless never falters. Every moment in it is treated as a unit of trust: the subject seems to be depending on the gravity, let alone the talent, of those who are exploring it.
Lajos Koltai, well known as a cinematographer (Mephisto, Colonel Redl), here makes his directing debut. He is marvelously concerned with faces. Throughout the film, long shots and panoramas, particularly of the prisoners en masse, recur as reminders of context; but principally Koltai wants his film to have its being in the faces of the boy and of all those he encounters. Every face becomes at least a minute biography. And Koltai gives the film an overall album effect by closing almost every scene with a quick fade instead of a sharp cut.
Inevitably enough, he has chosen an excellent cinematographer, Gyula Pados, and together they have provided Fateless with a visual texture in limbo. The palette is muted, so that the film seems, most of the time, to hover between color and black-and-white. Color in the camp scenes would have been upsetting; colors in the beginning or the end would have made it a movie. Throughout, the very palette conveys an aura of captivity.
Exceptional as these factors are, the film depended firstly and finally on the boy who plays the fourteen-year-old Gyuri. Marcell Nagy may or may not have a future as an actor, and may not even want one, but whatever happens to him later, he is fixed here in a being, a completeness, that will last. With the help of Koltai, to be sure, this boy creates from within. He never obeys the director, he never acts, he never wants to overwhelm us. When he needs to look into the camera, he tells us that the camera is not there: he is moving through an enclosing reality. It is extraordinary to be so convinced by a juvenile actor without any sense of an exceptional performance. Nagy is given a good deal of voice-over narration as connective tissue, and it too sounds true with an almost casual truth.
The extensive cast is flawless. As with Nagy, most of them seem committed, rather than cast. One curiosity: the next James Bond, Daniel Craig, who was visible in Munich, appears near the end as an American sergeant, Jewish, who wants to help the boy. Gyuri's refusal to be helped, his insistence on returning to Hungary, is part of his state of mind when he returns to Budapest, a state that will not completely surprise those familiar with Primo Levi.
Fateless had its American premiere at the Film Forum in New York and is now being shown in various cities around the country. Among its virtues, it is an assurance to those of us who may fear that the Holocaust is becoming a film genre. A film as truthful, in every sense, as Fateless bursts through genre bounds to become itself.
It is virtually impossible to review some books: one can only--if they are worth it--describe them. Here is one such. CONVERSATIONS WITH THE GREAT MOVIEMAKERS OF HOLLYWOOD'S GOLDEN AGE AT THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE is the less-than-lithe title of a collection of informal interviews with twenty-five directors, two screenwriters, one producer, and four cinematographers, all held at the AFI in Beverly Hills. The editor was George Stevens Jr., who was the founding director of the institute in 1967. President Lyndon Johnson had said, "We will create an American Film Institute to bring together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators, and young men and women who wish to pursue the twentieth century's art form as their life's work," and the government supplied one-quarter of the original funding, with the rest coming from matching grants. The institute has been busy ever since, launching some notable careers.
In each case the conversations in this book were between a professional and a group of the institute's fellows. The first was with Harold Lloyd in 1969; the last was with Satyajit Ray in 1978. (George Stevens Sr. was quite rightly one of the visitors.) Neither Ray nor a few others in the collection--Fellini, Renoir, Bergman--contributed perceptibly to the Golden Age of the title, but they did converse at the Institute so are--happily--included.
As might be expected of such conversations, some of the book is dross, but most of the talk is gratifying--with professional wisdom, character insight, and gossip. I limit myself to three quotations. Raoul Walsh, asked about the early Hollywood days: "In those days we used to work until three or four in the morning. When I'd get home at daybreak there'd be a new script on my lawn, next to the Los Angeles Times. We went back and started work at nine o'clock." David Lean, asked what he looked for in a story: "I wish I could tell you that. You know, I once ended up in one of London's biggest bookstores and found myself next to Carol Reed. We were staring at the shelves and he said, `The bugger of it is that within five yards of us there's a wonderful subject for a film.'" Billy Wilder, asked what he thought when he saw the first cut of his masterpiece, Some Like It Hot: "Any first cut of the picture makes you feel suicidal." There is more, lots of it.
This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.