Sunday, April 01, 2007


I just went to a couple of movies sponsored by FLEFF - the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, which is run by people at Ithaca College. The first movie was Fateless, after a book by Imre Kertesz, the Nobel Prize winner (in literature). I was fooled by the description given of the movie, which gave the impression that it focused on a Jewish boy's experiences (Gyurgy Koves) in Budapest after he had returned from imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps. Actually, most of the movie shows his experiences under Nazi rule. It begins by showing the goodbye given to his father just before he is going to be taken away to a forced labor camp. (He never saw his father again - he died in Mauthausen). Then Gyurgi has to go to work in a factory. One day on his way to work the bus he is riding is stopped by a Hungarian policeman, and all those wearing the yellow star are taken off.

This is the beginning of his journey to the camps - first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald, and finally to Zeitz. For most of the story detailed in the movie he is in Zeitz, where we see him become more and more drawn and emaciated until he almost dies. These scenes are beautiful and disturbing - and I would think they are far more realistic (and much less sentimental) than Schindler's List. He is then sent to Buchenwald to be cremated (because Zeitz does not have a crematorium) - although he is not dead yet. He ends up somehow in a hospital ward (at least that's what it looks like) be taken care of. As I watched the movie I thought this must have happened after the Americans liberated the camp, but apparently this took place in Buchenwald, somehow, before the liberation. He is there when the Americans liberate the camp, and there is a scene showing his encounter with an American Jewish officer who urges him not to return to Budapest, but to go to another country and apply for entrance to the United States.

Instead, he does return to Budapest, and searches for his father. He goes back to his old apartment, but another family is living there now and a woman opens the door just a little at his buzz and then closes it on him. He goes to the next door, and at first he is turned away, but then it turns out relatives of his live there - who were never sent to the camps. This is when he learns of his father's death. All of the people he meets in Budapest say the right things - how horrible and dreadful it must have been for him - but none of them truly understand what he experienced.

When I saw these encounters it crystallized for me a feeling I had a couple of summers ago when I visited what had been the concentration camp at Terezin, in the Czech Republic - that if one had not suffered that experience, one could really not understand. It was not possible to touch it from the outside. The movie gives the viewer a sense of both positions - both the returning survivor and the friends and relatives whom he is returning to. They have been continuing their lives as before (although they probably suffered something under Nazi rule) but he has had this utter interruption in his life that they cannot understand - and that they really don't want to (and who can blame them?). They still have their own personal concerns - they tell him that his stepmother has remarried. They talk about the business his father used to own. They tell him that his mother is waiting for him. We the viewer have seen his experience in the camps, so we have the feeling that we understand his perspective - although we are actually in the situation of the people he returns to. We were not in the camps - instead, we visit them now, 60 years later, and see movies about them that give us the illusion of experience and understanding. But the barrier to true understanding still remains.


  1. "But the barrier to true understanding still remains."

    This is absolutely true, but in a way, this merely highlights -- I think -- the tension between any consciousness of a human trying to completely understand that of another, even those who try their best, whether to fully understand the experience of a beloved one, a lover, a parent, a child, a sibling, of any people, however close they are to another. (And much of love would seem to me to delve into seeking to best understand the consciousness of the one one loves; Douglas Hofstadter seems to have written about some of this in his latest book, I Am A Strange Loop.)

    In a way, many of us spend much of our lives trying to achieve the greatest closeness we can to a few chosen others, out of all sorts of motives, including mutual joy, a sense of place and being understood, togetherness, companionship, someone to share with, someone whose reactions we take pleasure from, and on and on: but we're all always ultimately incomplete in our contact with others; an experience of such ultimate horror as the Holocaust, or any of its lesser or other equivalents, only exaggerates that incompleteness as an illustration, perhaps.

    Perhaps not; hardly a thought I'm sure about. Just a thought.

  2. Yes, I've certainly thought about that as well - but somehow I have the feeling that I've come closer to understanding how a loved person feels (even if that's illusory) than I have to understanding what Imre Kertesz went through in the concentration camps.