Film

Fateless (Sorstalanság) (2005)

Mike Ward

The horrors unfold gradually, experienced in detail by their victims, who are unlikely to name what they've been through 'Holocaust', to attach to their testimony the grand trappings of religion and myth.

Fateless (Sorstalanság)

Director: Lajos Koltai
Cast: Marcell Nagy, Béla Dóra, Bálint Péntek, Áron Dimény, Péter Fancsikai
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Dogwoof Pictures
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-01-06 (Limited release)

The poster for Fateless (Sorstalanság) says it "dares to aestheticize the concentration camp experience." It's true that the movie eschews the vigorous tragic accents of Sophie's Choice, Diary of Anne Frank, or Schindler's List, with their violin-heavy musical scores and outpourings of grief. Fateless instead unfolds with a quiet deliberation, an often disconcerting objectivity, and benefits greatly for it.

The film opens in occupied Budapest, late in the war, with 14-year-old Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy) walking briskly through an open courtyard, fussing at his lapel to make sure the yellow star on his coat is visible. We recoil from the injustice of this stigmatization, of course, but also note his instinctive compliance with it. As he returns home -- a pair of well-kept apartments where he lives with his father, stepmother, and extended family -- we learn that Köves the elder is to be sent to a labor camp and the family is busily preparing for his coming absence. Though the German occupation of Hungary is perceived as criminal and "mad," it is also as a quotidian reality, a bureaucratic hassle.

The first two reels also describe Gyuri's coming of age, as he goes to his first job as a bricklayer, is lectured on letting go the "carefree days of his childhood," and innocently courts teenage neighbor Annamaria (Sára Herrer). (In this there are some shades of convention, namely the tragic romance of The Diary of Anne Frank.) It falls to Annamaria to play the movie's first notes of desperation, as she breaks down in a crying fit during a tea party. She doesn't know what it means to be Jewish. "All I know," she says, "is it's a difference separating us from other people." She doesn't even know any more whether the grueling and humiliating regulations of the Nazis are unjust, or whether she has something to feel guilty about. It's reminiscent of the movie's first shot, where the irresistibility of the Law collides with its absurdity.

Faced with such hostile authority, the Köves spend much time pondering their future as well as that of the Jewish people more generally -- one of the elders ascribes the current hardship of European Jewry to the culmination of two millennia of persecution. This chapter comes to a close with a seemingly extraneous shot of a dull-faced Gyuri taking a long bath; he blows absently on a sail toy and it floats away from him. When he blows some more, his breath doesn't reach the toy any more, offering a rather obvious metaphor for the drifting of things away from your influence.

Gyuri subsequently finds himself a prisoner of the Nazis through an unremarkable chain of events. Again, the movie bucks convention. There are no SS death squads breaking into apartments in the dead of night; instead, as Gyuri rides a bus to work, a policeman pulls him off and holds him with a group of other Jewish children in a farmhouse while he phones in for orders. This leads to a series of petty bureaucratic intrigues and prisoner transfers that land Gyuri first in Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally Zeitz, a smaller camp. As he waits in a courtyard with dozens of other prisoners for the train that will take him to Auschwitz, there's an air raid. He watches the night sky crisscrossed with searchlights and peppered with Allied bombers, a sign of the end of his childhood: "The simple secret of my life," he ruminates in voiceover, is that "I could be killed any time, anywhere."

The realization itself is less remarkable than the apparent indifference with which it's voiced. The movie's moment of greatest horror follows shortly thereafter, as Gyuri sits with a friend from the brickworks, out behind the Buchenwald barracks at night. Clouds of gray smoke geyser from the nearby crematorium chimneys, creating a haze that diffuses the light from the post lamps -- an image of improbable, inappropriate beauty. But the meaning of the smoke is not lost on the two boys, who have heard talk of the gas chambers and ovens before arriving here. Gyuri observes, almost matter-of-factly, "We're all going to die."

The series of transfers at last leaves Gyuri among a sea of strangers, his friends having drifted out of his living sphere. ("We're all scattered," laments a fellow inmate in the barracks in the dark of night.) He seems now to be in a kind of afterlife, as he muddles through a purposeless and deprived existence. The lack of structure in the camps makes them seem outside time, and as Gyuri suffers and starves, his sensorium takes on more and more of a hallucinatory air. At last, emaciated and corpselike, he's loaded onto a wooden cart and carted through the camp -- evidently to the showers and his death -- and gazes vacantly around him. Shots from Gyuri's perspective show piles of emaciated bodies, the dead and dying presided over by uniformed Germans, images ungrounded and otherworldly. Or underworldly, to be more precise, the prisoners resembling the wasted souls of the damned and the Nazis standing over them like devils.

When at last the allies liberate his camp, Gyuri makes his way back to now-communist-occupied Budapest. On a streetcar -- still wearing his black-and-white-striped inmate uniform, as he now owns nothing in the world -- Gyuri allows a stranger to pay his fare, and the stranger is soon asking after his experience in the camps. Were you starved and beaten, he asks. "Naturally," replies Gyuri. It's a word he uses more than once, prompting the stranger to ask, "Why do you keep saying 'naturally' when it's not natural at all?" "In the concentration camp, it was natural," Gyuri explains. The Köves family elders tell him they've heard that the camps were like the lowest circle of Hell. "Hell doesn't exist," Gyuri replies, "but the camps do."

Fateless seems aimed at confronting the twin conventional wisdoms about the Holocaust. The first holds that the Holocaust was a horror without equal in history, and the second is that it must be remembered lest we repeat it. But to envelop it in superlative, as the first corollary would have us do, makes its recurrence more likely. This is because, as Fateless reminds us, such horrors unfold gradually, experienced in detail by their victims, who are unlikely to name what they've been through "Holocaust," to attach to their testimony the grand trappings of religion and myth.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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