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For most people, one of the hardest thing to understand about the Holocaust is how 6 million Jews and 5 million other undesirables (Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally retarded people and so on) were slaughtered without much of a fight. But thinking that way is reducing a complex moment in history. One critical thing most movies about this horrible period of the 20th century fail to convey is how isolating, demeaning, cruel and deceptive the world turned on all those people in Europe for so many years. It is hard to imagine anyone fighting back when you feel there is simply no hope left and thousands and thousands are murdered around you every day without anyone else caring.
Based on the Literature Nobel-prize winning autobiographical novel from Imre Kertesz (which he adapted himself for the film), the film focuses on Hungarian 14-year-old Gyorgy who is yanked out of his innocent life and thrown into labor camps and finally into death camps. The movie takes a very different approach with regards to the Holocaust in that is focuses on the great deception itself, how so many Jews simply could not believe that the worst was about to happen to them and how even after the war, those who managed to not be rounded up were so often in complete disbelief still. Then the film focuses on Gyorgy and his incredible survival tale amidst an environment that simply puts Hell to shame. Instead of the usual blood and guts point of view, we see how so many people were so systematically and unrelentingly dehumanized, as if the ultimate reward for Germans and Poles and many of the accomplices of this terrible act was more to break spirits and have their victims completely lose hope, rather than mechanically exterminate them as is often portrayed.
This is very critical because it shows the Holocaust very subtilely more as a sadistic and evil endeavor of enormous proportions rather than a mechanical extermination which is the position many people tend to take. The film shows that instead of being no better than cattle, all those Jews in camps were in fact in a daily fight to keep their dignity in the middle of all those horrors, and remain human and true to their faith to the last minute, which obviously attracted even more anger and violence in reprisal from their persecutors bent on breaking them. It is an important lesson.
Technically, this Hungarian film is surprisingly well done, with impressive cinematography and art direction that gives an all too realistic look and feel to the film. The performances are incredible, especially from real-life 14-year-old Marcell Nagy. Some scenes in the movie are so incredibly difficult that is it astonishing that this boy delivered such a deep and mature performance. The only blemish is surprisingly the score from master Ennio Morricone. The music in this film is sometimes so melodramatic with inappropriate lyrical voices hitting a few high notes that it distracts from the authentic drama on display. The music also lacked any discernable eastern-European tone which gave the film a strange disconnected mood at time. All in all, it was out of place average Morricone and that truly brought the film down one notch for me unfortunately.
This is a powerful, graphic and depressing film that depicts the Holocaust in a novel way and subtilely shows how Jews thought back by keeping their dignity all the way through their last moment, how they supported one another, and how their persecutors were more in the business of torture, dehumanization and thorough sadistic deception than in a simple mechanized business of extermination. Imre Kertész retains a very honest and strong, yet optimistic, position even after all he went through, and provides a unique first-person account of a time many of us can't even fathom in our worst dreams today.
- Laurent Hasson