Imre Kertesz: Write to life

2002 Nobel Prize winner for literature Imre Kertesz talks about the film adaptation fo his Holocaust novel Fateless.
Berlin, 2005

Did you have any reservations about your semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, being turned into a movie?

“In the beginning I had a lot of reservations, I must admit, and then I changed my mind and decided to write the screenplay myself. Then I was able to put an end to all my concerns. So I’m happy with the outcome.”

What were your reservations?

“Of course there were some reservations on my part because a film is a completely different genre and I didn’t want the novel, and the structure of the novel, to be changed in any way. So I think this is just a basic instinct on the part of writers.”

How did you approach the screenplay in order to retain the integrity of the novel’s structure?

“Right from the beginning onwards, it was impossible to use the same language I used in the novel in the film as well, or to transform it or transfer it in any way. That was simply inconceivable. In the novel I use a rather fictitious, analytical, and kind of reluctant language which cannot be used in film in any way. So what I tried to do was to translate one layer of the story of the novel into the film. I wanted to pick up the narrative and focus on a linear development in the film, by telling the story of a person who loses his personality.”

Does the actor in the film look like the hero in the novel, or like you at that age?

“The hero in the novel doesn’t have much in common with me. I gave him a lot of my own personal history but we differ significantly in nature. And the main actor in the film, who is a boy like an angel, also doesn’t have very much in common with me.”

The boy survives by conforming to the concentration camp system. Is our ability to adapt a weakness as well as a strength? It was that conformist nature which, in a sense, allowed the Holocaust to happen, as well enabling people like the boy to survive.

“It always depends on your personal viewpoint and your personal angle. It is positive in the sense that people are simply able to conform to almost anything which helps them to survive. But you can also look at it from a negative viewpoint by saying that people are able to conform almost completely.”

Yes, the ability which enables him/you to survive also brought about the Holocaust in a way, didn’t it, because many people adapted to Nazism?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a very interesting question that an old English writer, Mr Sterne, once put to himself: did he use his suffering and his pain well enough? And that is also a question that people put to themselves after having gone through a concentration camp, for example. Does it contribute to your life, does it enrich your personality, or do you lose a lot? That always depends on the individual.”

At the end of the film the character expresses nostalgia for the camps. Is this something mankind needs or is it a particular nostalgia of this character?

“I think it’s generally true to say this is the case and it’s nothing unusual. If somebody was imprisoned in a labour camp for a long time, once he’s released the feeling of freedom and liberty leaves him too much space that he actually starts to yearn for those times when he was captured and when he was locked up. So this nostalgia, which refers to a written passage at the end of the novel, reflects a certain kind of upheaval of writing on the part of this young boy. Now, he’s travelling this world of confusion, this boy, on his way home. He’s full of disgust and disdain because he doesn’t understand the world anymore, and therefore he’s longing for the times when he was still locked up in the concentration camp. We, as viewers, don’t know whether he feels like going back because the feeling of upheaval is stirred by the heat of the moment, or whether this is of a more general nature.”

Are these invented emotions or did you experience these feelings?

“I personally do not remember the feelings that I had back then. But in the novel, the hero was supposed to feel homesick in a way.”

How much did you contribute to the production of the film?

“I was not involved in the filmmaking at all and I was not contributing to selecting the actors either. I think the director was more apt to do that and, honestly speaking, I’m clueless concerning the Hungarian actors and their specific features or capabilities. So I didn’t want to interfere either when the film was shot, because that’s always the wrong place to be for a writer. He’s always in the way. So I stayed away.”

Three years ago your screenplay was distributed in Vienna with the title Step By Step. 100,000 copies of it were distributed. Was it exactly the screenplay that was used for this film, or how much of it was amended and edited?

“That’s exactly the one we used. The test was not amended.”

You have talked about the “Auschwitz disease” and I'd like to know whether you consider this to be a condition which is curable? Also, has anything been learned from these events, in your opinion?

“It always depends. It depends on your individual personality. There are some people who suffer from this disease for life, simply because of the experience they have gone through. Another group simply doesn’t talk about it. And a third group of people have learned to come to terms with these events.”

Which group do you consider yourself to be in?

“[Laughs] I’m a writer, so I don’t belong to any one of these three categories, because my metabolism with reality differs significantly from the metabolism of most of the people you normally meet. I view my experience as being raw material and I process it in the process of writing. And as I go along, I get rid of this experience. You know, this is how I go on and on and on and on, until I reach a stage, as a writer, where I will have run out of raw material. Then it’s time to die. Just like the fate of Sisyphus, which I described at the end of my novel called Fiasco, there is this man standing on a rock with three gravel stones in his pocket, and he’s on his way home.”

Lajos Koltai, the film’s director, says the boy experiences a kind of beauty while spending time in the concentration camp. Do you agree with that?

“Yes, I very much share this particular view, because that is part of the whole story. Nature remains unchanged no matter what. The sun is always there, shining. There are the trees bearing fruit. Although I’m not the one who can pick them, they’re there. And the more beautiful nature, the stronger is the horror and pain.”

This film is more neutral, emotionally speaking, than Hollywood films like Schindler’s List. Do you believe that this is a better way to deal with this kind of subject matter?

“Yes, I think it really makes sense to be a bit more neutral, because if you’re too emotional you won’t get anywhere really. People keep on complaining, grumbling, but nobody wants to listen to them. That’s the problem. You have to find the right format, especially if you want to convey a message that relates to so much significant personal experience. If you want to reach out you have to find a different way. You have to stop complaining, you have to stop asking for people’s compassion, because that won’t get you anywhere.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007

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