Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fateless But Fallible

From an informed and intelligent source comes another attack on Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, and his Shoah Foundation. Imre Kertesz, Holocaust survivor and award-winning novelist, wrote the script and apparently had "veto" control over Lajos Koltai's film adaptation of his novel Fateless. In an interview included in the Fateless DVD "special features", Kertesz makes his opinion of Schindler's List, Spielberg, and the Shoah Foundation unapologetically clear:

Kertesz: "Spielberg I dislike very much. Schindler's List is a mistake for a person who knows exactly what happened. Schindler's List is unacceptable for those people. It's unacceptable because all this horror is pictured like it's about the victory of humanity. But humanity will never get over the Holocaust. So it's a totally fake interpretation, it's a lie."

Interviewer: "This is your opinion of Spielberg's Foundation, too?"

Kertesz: "It is. It's not the right way to interview survivors, 500 old ladies who tell the same thing: 'we were deported, put in a wagon, we were thirsty, we were hungry, dogs were barking, there was yelling. . . .' We know that. I respect the survivors, I am one of them too. If somebody wants something to remain in the audience's mind, the stories of 500 survivors is not the way. The story of only one, that's the way, like in [Claude Lanzmann's documentary] Shoah. That's a film. When Muller, survivor of the Sonderkommando, starts to speak, everybody cries, although he himself is not even moved. Just tells the facts. . . . Look, lots of directors tried to reconstruct concentration camps. [In Schindler's List] they are speaking from the Auschwitz camp to Schindler. So they say 'Hello Boss!' through the barbed wire to a civilian passerby. That's ridiculous. But that's not the biggest problem, although it's a problem. The biggest problem is that it's inauthentic, that he has no idea of the whole thing."


This argument is an old one, going back to the first attempts to represent the Holocaust on stage and on film. Whenever a playwright or filmmaker attempted a mimetic approach to the subject - trying to re-create the camps realistically - there were predictable, and quite natural, objections, largely from the survivors themselves. (1) Some of them argued, as Kertesz does, that there cannot possibly be a re-creation of the Holocaust, that the subject is not "reduceable" in any linear, literal way. The only way to touch the subject through art, they argued, is in a non-linear, allusive way, as in Paul Celan's poem "Totesfuge" and in Alain Resnais' film Night and Fog.

But some of Kertesz's comments are disingenuous, as when he attacks the Shoah Foundation for recording the stories of "500 old ladies" and praises Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah for being "the story of only one". Shoah is more than nine hours of the stories of dozens of Holocaust witnesses, in their own words, carefully intertwined by Lanzmann to form a fascinating, comprehensive whole. When Kertesz claims that Filip Muller, survivor of five liquidations of the "special detail" at Auschwitz, "is not even moved" when he speaks, he is simply distorting the truth. If "everyone cries" when Muller speaks, it is because of his highly emotional delivery. In fact, Muller is so "unmoved" that he even breaks down in tears when he relates the moment when he knew that his life had no more meaning. And when Kertesz singles out a specific scene from Schindler's List for attack, he says that it is from "Auschwitz" where prisoners speak to Schindler through the "barbed wire". The scene is actually at Plaszow, not Auschwitz, and it is Stern, Schindler's bookkeeper, who motions to him through the fence. For someone who insists on the importance of getting the facts straight, and who claims that Spielberg got it all wrong, these factual errors are rather sad.

It is clear that Kertesz is so resentful of Spielberg and of Schindler's List that he was determined to hate them for having the presumption to trespass on a subject that he regards as his private preserve. Kertesz has conveniently forgotten a scene in his novel, and in the film, Fateless, that should be a warning to those who take on the responsibility of caretakers of history. When the war is over and Gyorgy and his compatriots are on their way back to Hungary, he is approached by a man in a railway station where the following exchange occurs:

Man: Did you see the gas chambers?
Gyorgy: We wouldn't be speaking now if I had.
Man: Did they exist?
Gyorgy: It depends. They definitely did in Auschwitz. But I've come from Buchenwald.
Man: From where?
Gyorgy: Buchenwald.
Man: From Buchenwald.
Gyorgy: Yes.
Man: So you heard about the gas chambers, but you didn't see them with your own eyes, right?
Gyorgy: Right.
Man: Thank you, that's all I wanted to know.

No single Holocaust survivor can speak for them all, since no single personal account of the Holocaust (which the film Shoah most definitely is not) can lay claim either to the entirety of the event or to all the ways in which it can be remembered. Kertesz may be a gifted novelist, but his account of his Holocaust is just one of thousands. The whole point of Spielberg's Foundation is that every account, regardless of its consistencies with other accounts (or perhaps because of them) contributes to our understanding of the Holocaust - despite some people's insistence that we cannot hope to understand it. And I have news for Kertesz: humanity has already "got over" the Holocaust. And that is the biggest problem.


(1) Bruno Bettelheim attacked Lina Wertmuller's use of a concentration camp in her film Seven Beauties (1976). In the film, an Italian prisoner decides that the only way to survive the camp is to seduce the camp commandant, who is a woman.

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