14-year-old György's life is torn apart in WWII Hungary, as he is deported first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, where he is forced to become a man in the midst of hatred, and what it r... Read all14-year-old György's life is torn apart in WWII Hungary, as he is deported first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, where he is forced to become a man in the midst of hatred, and what it really means to be Jewish.14-year-old György's life is torn apart in WWII Hungary, as he is deported first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, where he is forced to become a man in the midst of hatred, and what it really means to be Jewish.
It takes quite a while for the viewer to understand that the point of Nobel-prize winning Imre Kertész's adaptation of his debut, semi-autobiographical novel is to tell the specific story of Hungarian Jews, as zero context is provided for the opening, anecdotal scenes, no dates, no background information on where in World War II we are starting from and not even how much time is passing in the first third of the film as the Nazis' net tightens on Budapest's Jews.
Perhaps director Lajos Koltai's goal in not providing the kind of context that was carefully established on films where he was the cinematographer, "Sunshine" and "Max," was to help us understand the bewilderment of the diverse Jewish community-- observant and secular, capitalists and workers, young and old, and the randomness of what happened to them. Families coalesce in confusion as they are buffeted by scraps of information, changing government directives, amidst anti-Semitism and collaboration by their fellow Hungarians. We're also supposed to believe, however, that amidst these confusions the young teen protagonist (the very expressive Marcell Nagy) has extensive philosophical discussions with his play mates, and the girl next door who he of course has a crush on, about Jewish identity. Otherwise, his WWII experiences look a lot like the boy's in Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun."
The next third of the film is gruesome experiences in concentration camps as we have seen before, even though these are extremely effectively re-enacted as the huge cast of actors and extras desiccate before our eyes. The production design in recreating the bare shelter and their work detail is the most realistic I've seen in a fiction film, as compared to documentaries and as described to me by a cousin who was the sole Holocaust survivor in our family (I'm named for her father who died in Auschwitz).
Halfway through these horrors, the theme of the film as to the uniqueness of the Hungarian experience starts to come through more than the usual Nazi sadism. Survival is linked to mutual dependence, camaraderie and bonding that comes from their national identification, even more than their shared religion (we see a few inmates nobly strive to maintain Jewish rituals). Individual personalities vividly come through and attitude and the help of one's fellow man turns out to be as important as food, as life is reduced to its most basic elements. The only other film I've seen that communicates this as emotionally was Peter Morley's documentary "Kitty: A Return to Auschwitz," about an essential mother/child bond.
Even during the camp experience, though, some subtleties are lost by lack of context for an English-speaking audience, as a few scenes were confusing to me as there was evidently significances if a character was speaking German or Hungarian, and that difference went by me. The German signage was not translated, so the last part of the boy's Buchenwald experiences was also confusing, unless the point was that he was mystified as well. The voice over narration throughout is, unnecessarily, for philosophical ruminations and does not communicate any additional information than the stark visuals and conversations.
With liberation indirectly providing the first date reference in the film as we presume it is 1945, Daniel Craig has a cameo as an American soldier, in his second appearance in a film in the past year as a Jew, after "Munich." His role recalls Montgomery Clift in Fred Zinnemann's 1948 "The Search," as one of the few films to also portray the wandering Jews as Displaced Persons amidst the rubble of Europe and their destroyed lives and communities.
The last section is movingly unique and vital viewing as we see Europeans, who we know from France to Russia but here particularly Hungarians, will settle into their amnesia and denial of responsibility, what a survivor in a documentary called "the 81st blow" that is the worst of all. While issues of vengeance are included in passing, the survivors seem like ghosts in their tattered prison garb as haunting images that affront and challenge returning normality like echoes of a nightmare that should go away in the light of day. The survivors are suffering from post-traumatic stress and cannot communicate what happened to them in language that the curious, whether family, friends or strangers, can understand-- or want to understand. The visceral impact is again marred by duplicative philosophizing.
Ennio Morricone's score emphasizes the potential for humanity, with beautiful vocalizations by Lisa Gerrard.
As to the cinematography, indiewire reports that the film used bleached-bypass color prints, with laser-applied subtitles: "In the concentration camps, it becomes more monochromatic. And after the liberation, the color comes back in." I saw it still in first run at NYC's Film Forum and the print was already scratched quite a bit, and there were frequent white on white subtitles.
A neighbor whose family had experiences as in the film provided background: "The Germans entered Hungary on March 19, 1944. They had exactly one year to do there what they did in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. in 6 years. The deportations started around April-May of 1944 from the outskirts of the country, leaving Budapest to the end and since the war was over the following May, there was no time to deport them as well. Jews from Budapest had to be terribly unlucky to be sent to the chambers. That's why my parents, who survived, and grandparents, who did not, were sent to the camps because they did not live in the capital. It was very haphazardly done from the capital. There were several groups of Jews who were taken from labor camps to the front in the Ukraine."
- Feb 18, 2006