Arts and entertainments from four nations caught in the catastrophe of the century of progress. Or, four very different World War IIs.
First, the book: Andrzej Szczypiorski’s The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, which I read in Klara Glowczewska’s translation. This is a fractal portrait of Poland, in which every chapter follows a different person from prewar life to death. All these people get caught up in one microcosm event: the arrest of Irma Seidenman, who is living under an assumed name on the Aryan side of Nazi-occupied Warsaw. The novel’s form makes the case for Poland as a reality, “Poland is a thing” as the youth of today would say. The novel’s events make the case that, as most cultures are defined by their characteristic conflicts, Poland is defined by the dichotomy of innocent suffering (it is “the Christ of Nations,” or so the Poles tell us) vs. complicit villainy, the victim or the henchman.
This is a more easily-intelligible book than A Mass for Arras, though it shares that book’s concerns with home, homelessness, and complicity. Szczypiorski gives many of these characters flights into lyricism, though they’re flights in different directions: nostalgia for the age of the Habsburgs, betrayed socialism, Jewish belonging and Polish nationalism and Christian faith. Toward the very end we even inhabit the mind of a Nazi officer and get a taste of the kitschy lyricism of the Reich–although Szczypiorski does this character the kindness of sending him to a Soviet prison camp, where his mind goes animal-silent and numb with hunger. There are bafflingly sad trajectories, like the rebellious Jewish kid who turns into a hidebound anti-Semitic elderly Pole; a doctor has a vision of his dead father while his home is being raided. (The noises of soldiers ransacking his home come to him like “the ticking of an enormous clock, which was measuring his own time as no other clock had until now.”) All of it is part of a portrait–or a shaggy-dog tale, “a farcical anecdote told to the world by God, whose title is Poland.”
While I was reading Mrs. Seidenman I watched Green for Danger–a jarring contrast! Green is a slight mystery, starring Alistair Sim as an unnervingly chop-licking detective, set in 1944 and punctuated the explosions of Nazi flying bombs. I don’t even know what else to say about it. It’s okay, as a movie, its final twists came a little too fast and twisty for me, its main interest is that it’s a cozy old-fashioned whodunnit where everybody’s sort of embarrassed at how they flinch at loud noises because they might be V-1s.
Il Generale della Rovere is (heart emoji) Roberto Rossellini’s tale of Nazi-occupied Italy, about a scrambler, a schemer, a con man (played with soiled charm by Vittorio de Sica) who would be easy to love if his current scheme weren’t squeezing cash from desperate families by pretending he can get the Nazis to free their imprisoned relatives. When this guy gets what’s coming to him and winds up behind bars, he agrees to be part of a farcical plot to pretend a dead Italian resistance leader is still alive. This Weekend at Bernini’s business is played with a perfect mix of vivacity and conviction. There’s a frothiness to it, a lightness, lent by the seedy character of our hero and the office-politics, don’t-tell-the-boss nature of the Nazis’ scheme. And yet the prison feels very real and raw, with the last testimonies of executed prisoners carved into the walls. The symbolic, somewhat willful ending (does the lowlife’s final choice actually protect the person he’s trying to protect?) allows our louse/hero to be changed by his experiences, to drop the only goal he’s ever had: survival.
The movie looks great, crisp high-contrast ruins. (You can rent it on YouTube.) I would like to say a special word for the lowlife’s moll (Giovanna Ralli), who turns up in the first scenes looking spectacularly louche and foxy. You can feel her performing her disappointment in her man. She’s actressy in a way that really works for this story of the mask sinking into the skin.
I haven’t watched many “Holocaust movies.” So I don’t know to what extent Fateless, adapted by Imre Kertesz and director Lajos Koltai from Kertesz’s novel, is actually unusual. It did several things I hadn’t seen before, starting from very early, when one of the effects of Nazi repression is to complicate the already difficult balancing acts of a “blended family.” Gyorgy (Marcell Nagy) is the child of divorced parents, and his father, who has custody, warns him that his mother may try to work on his affections while the father is at a forced-labor camp.
Fateless is like the book in having a pretty clear thesis–the Holocaust exposes the meaninglessness of life; no choices really affect things, not even the choice to hope or despair. It feels about as good to watch as that description would suggest. Gyorgy ends up in a concentration camp by chance, though it was probably an inevitable chance–it would’ve happened soon, even though there was no particular reason it happened on that day or in that way. The film, which is a little over two hours long, captures the endlessness of life in the camps, the endlessly repeated days and labors and inspections. It conveys a feeling of exhaustion. Mist drifts through the camp, lending a beauty which does not point to any meaning or goodness, a kind of drained beauty.
Gyorgy survives, is liberated, and returns to his native Hungary. The people from the early scenes return–and they’re weirdly, horribly unchanged. They want to pick up the thread of their lives whereas Gyorgy can’t. He’s filled with hatred, anger and resentment toward people who can still act as if what they’re doing has some purpose–people who have suffered, but not as much. They still find meaning in their suffering, they can call certain things “dreadful,” whereas Gyorgy no longer knows what that word means–what is dreadful and what is just normal, just a thing that exists? They are still the selves they started out as, whereas Gyorgy is, or at least can only feel that he is, a familiar skin from which the old self has been extracted and a kind of active emptiness poured in as a replacement. He does continue, though, and heads out into a future, because what else can you do.
Somebody on IMDB seems to have added this film to a list of “inspirational movies” so maybe it is true that nothing in life makes sense.