'Schindler's List? Kitsch'
Nobel winner Imre Kertesz thought the movie industry would ruin his Holocaust memoir Fateless. Was he right?
By Geoffrey Macnab
Tue 23 Aug 2005
ot long before he went to Sweden to accept the 2002 Nobel prize for literature, the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz received a brown envelope in the post. It had been sent to him by the Buchenwald Memorial Centre and contained a copy of a report, dated February 18 1945, about the camp's prisoners. Among the deaths listed was that of prisoner number 64, 921 - a certain Imre Kertesz. He was described as a factory worker, born in 1927. In fact, Kertesz was born in 1929: he had lied about his age when he entered the camp so the Nazis wouldn't think him a child, and said he was a worker rather than a schoolboy to appear more useful. "In short, I died once so I could live," he said of the report in his Nobel prize acceptance speech. "Perhaps that is my real story."
Kertesz's experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald form the backcloth to his 1975 semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, which the Nobel academy singled out in its citation. And it is largely thanks to the Nobel prize that Fateless has now been made into a movie.
Directed by Lajos Koltai - best-known for his photography on Istvan Szabo films including Being Julia - the film has had a troubled history. The most expensive production in Hungarian history, it was dogged by financial scandal, and almost abandoned when the original producer walked out. Even Kertesz says he wasn't eager to see Fateless turned into a film. But now it's finished he's happy with the results. "I was completely overwhelmed. I saw it as if I was a stranger. Paradoxically, despite the content, the film is very beautiful."
A small, balding man with a kindly demeanour and a mischievous smile, Kertesz is a self-deprecating and surprisingly humorous interviewee. He confides that he went on set only once during shooting. "When I was there, I lost my glasses and the whole crew started looking for them. That's not really what you want to call a fruitful cooperation."
Reviews for the film have been enthusiastic so far, with some critics comparing it to Spielberg's Schindler's List - although Kertesz dismisses Spielberg's movie as "kitsch" and the storytelling in each movie is very different. There is nothing spectacular in the way Fateless unfolds. As in the book, events are seen entirely from the perspective of 15-year-old protagonist Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy) as he is rounded up with thousands of other Hungarian Jews and put on a train to Auschwitz, then taken to Buchenwald.
Kertesz finished the book in Hungary in the mid-1960s but had to wait almost a decade to find a publisher. "Because I didn't write what the communist government wanted to see, I was cut off and alone with my work," he says. "I never thought my book would ever be published, and so I had the freedom to write as radically as I wanted." Even when the book did appear in 1975, critics paid little attention.
It wasn't until after the fall of the Iron Curtain that Kertesz began to win international literary awards - and producers became interested in making a movie of his best-known work. A screenplay was commissioned from a professional scriptwriter. This, to Kertesz's dismay, began with a famous violinist returning to Budapest from New York and then, in flashback, showed him as a teenager in the concentration camp. "I looked at his script and I realised that many things were wrong," Kertesz says. He decided to write a new screenplay, but it wasn't until he won the Nobel prize that anyone was willing to fund it.
Maybe potential financiers were put off by the way Fateless broke the "rules" governing Holocaust stories. Gyuri (like Kertesz) is a non-believing Jew. He is not educated according to Jewish traditions. "He is a non-Jewish Jew," Kertesz says, "and he had to share in the fate of so many Jews and he feels this is kind of an absurdity."
Among the film's most disconcerting scenes is the arrival at Auschwitz. The mood is perversely upbeat. We see a woman put on lipstick and some of the older men try to engage the guards in conversation. "The Hungarian Jews didn't know what to expect," Kertesz says. Reports about the death camps had reached Hungary by early 1944, but the Jewish Council had decided not to publish them. "So many people came to Germany who were simply clueless. They didn't know what to expect and since they hadn't been treated very well by the Hungarian gendarmerie, they were hoping things would turn out for the better."
Equally eerie is the scene in which the boy returns to Budapest after the US forces have liberated Buchenwald. His home is occupied by someone else. People don't know how to respond to him. They speak about his experiences in cliches and grow frustrated when he won't see himself as a victim. They're appalled when he expresses homesickness and nostalgia for the camp.
Like Gyuri, Kertesz was presented with a tantalising choice after the camps were liberated. He could go to the US or to return to Hungary. He chose the latter. Soon, though, Hungary fell under the yoke of Stalin. Kertesz, who lost his job as a journalist for not being respectful enough to his communist masters, was exposed to a new kind of dictatorship. This, he claims, liberated him as a writer.
"In a democracy," he says, "I would never have been able to understand and realise what happened to me back then in the camps. As an adult, I survived this dictatorship and this dictatorship told me what had happened to me when I was young."