Beyond the Multiplex

A new release that ranks among the greatest of all Holocaust films. Plus: Horror king Eli Roth defends his excess.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 5, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Horror films have a much more direct relationship to political and social reality than those who make them and watch them and write about them generally care to discuss. It's sort of a dumb-dream-state relationship; you know, the kind of thing where you wake up in the morning and smite your brow in sheer exasperation at the obviousness of that dream about making it with your second-grade teacher or discovering that your parents are cannibals.

Too much has been written (some of it by me) about how the decades of the Bomb and the Red Menace produced giant monsters and all-absorbing blobs, how consumerism and generational alienation fueled the zombie boom, and how Freddy Krueger in his dank suburban basement represented the bad conscience, or whatever, of the Reagan era. That's not all B.S. by any means, but sometimes this critical theorizing misses the easy stuff that's in plain view. If horror films like Eli Roth's new "Hostel," or Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects," or the "Saw" series, present ever more gruesome images of torture and carnage, well, why are we surprised?

Thankfully, most of us will never be exposed to such things, except in the movies. Actual crime and violence remain at historically low levels. But let's just say that torture, fear and powerlessness are very much on our minds. Is some deranged wacko with a medieval ideology going to blow us up? Or is our own deranged government the real enemy, with its increasingly nuanced definition of torture, its international network of secret jails known and unknown, and its habit of abducting suspects for "rendition" to foreign governments with deep, dark dungeons?

I'm not suggesting that Eli Roth, with his topless Euro-babes and horrific scenes of violence, is trying to sneak in a political message while he's rocking and shocking the mostly young and mostly male horror audience. Or anyway, I wouldn't be suggesting it if he hadn't pretty much told me he was.

Maybe the only thing more disturbing than "Hostel" this week was seeing Lajos Koltai's Holocaust odyssey "Fateless" -- which you could call a more serious and artful kind of horror film, aimed at an entirely different audience -- and realizing how similar the two movies are under the skin. Yes, it's an outrageous comparison, but an irresistible one. Both depict an ordinary, comfortable European existence that abruptly descends into atrocity, and both seek to capture, or perhaps fuel, our anxiety about the permeable barrier that separates normality from nightmare.

Roth says "Hostel" is about arrogance and xenophobia, and the human tendency to exploit others, even to unimaginable extremes. OK, fair enough. But more specifically, it's about overconfident young travelers out for adventure, who arrive at an unexpected and horrible destination. Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, a concentration-camp survivor who adapted his own novel for Koltai's film of "Fateless," has said that he sees nothing specifically Jewish or German about the Holocaust. What he found in Auschwitz, he says, was "the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his 2,000-year moral and cultural history." Pack your bags, everybody!

"Hostel": It's "Animal House" plus "European Vacation," but with chainsaws
His movie "Hostel," says Eli Roth, "might do for tourism in Slovakia what 'Midnight Express' did for American tourism in Turkey."

Actually, the torments inflicted on Brad Davis' drug-smuggling character in Alan Parker's 1978 quasi-classic seem like lunch in the Louvre cafeteria compared to what befalls the dudely backpackers of "Hostel." During a happy-go-lucky summer interlude in Amsterdam, college buds Paxton (Jay Fernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) and their Icelandic friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) are inhaling copious amounts of weed and chasing chicks, with limited success. (As Oli's T-shirt announces, they're on "Sneepur Patrol," that being a phonetic version of the Icelandic word for clitoris.)

But the free-roaming chick population of Amsterdam isn't all that impressed with frat-boy-style Yank visitors at this point, and the hookers are, well, hookers. Our boys are heading to Barcelona next, but en route they hook up with a slightly shady Eastern European guy named Alex who assures them, no, that city's overwhelmed with Americans too. For girls, you go east, past Berlin, into the former Soviet bloc. He knows a hostel outside Bratislava that isn't in the guidebooks, where the girls are beautiful and "because of the war, there are no guys."

As Roth tells me during our phone conversation, this is meant to be complete nonsense. "What war?" he asks rhetorically. "There's been no war in Slovakia. Basically, Alex is telling them what they want to hear. He's appealing to their lust, their prejudice, their ignorance. When it comes to girls, guys will believe whatever they want to." It's hard to say how much of the film's audience will even get this joke, but the larger point -- that these half-likable American jerkasses are wandering into an unknown and unpredictable situation in quest of sneepur -- seems clear enough.

Things start to seem slightly off during the train journey east: An icky middle-aged businessman puts the moves on Josh, whose response seems a bit too vehement, and Bratislava turns out to be a depressing burg whose streets are dominated by skinhead thugs and bands of homeless children. (The movie was mostly shot in the neighboring Czech Republic.) But the hostel turns out to be just as Alex advertised, maybe a little too much so.

When the trio checks in, the cute girl at the desk tells them that the rooms aren't private, and they'll have roommates. "Roommates!" the alpha stud Paxton smirks. "That's gay." Oh, no, it isn't. Their roommates turn out to be Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabková), a pair of bodacious hotties who immediately invite our heroes to join them in the clothing-highly-optional coed sauna. Every decent Slovakian hostel has one, of course.

So Paxton and Josh enjoy a smashing evening with their nubile companions, or at least Paxton does. (Whether Josh is actually interested in the company of women is open to debate.) But wait a sec -- where's Oli? He went off with some other chick, but now he won't answer his cell phone. And what's with that weird picture he sent, where his face looks really unhappy and he's someplace really dark?

As those of us sitting in the audience know already, Oli has gone someplace very bad indeed, and Paxton and Josh are going to learn about it firsthand, very soon. As Roth puts it, "Hostel" is a "slow-burn horror film" that takes an abrupt left turn into savagery at about the halfway mark. The babealicious Bratislava hostel is the bait that lures victims into a sort of medieval torture chamber for hire, a murder-brothel where rich men of all nations can unleash their most bloodthirsty impulses.

Roth explains that the idea for "Hostel" came from a Thai Web site he was shown by Harry Knowles, the legendary Internet geek behind Ain't It Cool News, which promised something similar. "It doesn't matter if it was real or fake," Roth says. "Somebody was bored enough to dream it up. The fact is, there are guys out there who are bored with doing drugs, bored with screwing hookers. Nothing touches them anymore, so they start looking for the ultimate high. Paying to kill someone, to torture them -- that's the ultimate form of prostitution."

But what's made "Hostel" instantly notorious is not the philosophical questions it raises, such as they are, but the intense and horrifying nature of its violence. You could argue, in fact, that Roth is playing to precisely the kind of jadedness he says he's criticizing. In the last few years horror directors have all but abandoned mood, atmosphere and suggestion for full-on graphic bloodshed, and Roth, a protégé of Quentin Tarantino and one of the most talented filmmakers in the genre, is leading the way.

He has no apologies. "This is a really, really violent and bloody film," he says. "And if people don't want to see that, they absolutely shouldn't go. I think there is absolutely an audience that wants their horror horrific. They don't want it safe. I'm not trying to make movies that appeal to everyone, and I think the advertising makes that clear. This is stuff that really horrifies and disturbs me."

Roth made "Hostel" independently, on a relatively low budget of $4 million, even though he could have made any number of big-money studio deals after the success of his debut feature, "Cabin Fever." This was precisely, he says, so no one could tell him he had to cut his most gruesome scenes of violence. I tell him the truth about my own reaction, which was that I admired the humor, the tremendous craftsmanship and even the shock value of "Hostel," but found the Grand Guignol torture scenes excessive. (Unless you're a hardcore fan of Italian, Spanish and Japanese gore flicks, you've never seen anything like this.)

"I think I have the exact level of violence I need," Roth responds. "If people are going to have sex and meet horrible deaths, I want to see that. I mean, if I started off in minute one with nonstop gore and violence, that would be way too much. But audiences are kind of numb. They're bored of the same stuff. I want people to leave the theater saying, 'That was really, really violent and fucked-up. That really disturbed me.'"

Gruesome cinema performs a cathartic function in stressful times, Roth suggests. "You know, we live in really crazy, fucked-up times, and usually it's not OK to just freak out. With a horror movie like this -- a crazy, intense bloodbath -- you can walk into a room with a bunch of strangers and just scream and go nuts. The screenings for this have been amazing: People shrieking, people running out, people screaming things at the screen. And then after 90 minutes you get to leave, and everybody's OK."

In fact, as Roth observes, people who stigmatize violent entertainment are missing the most obvious point, which even the dumbest member of the audience realizes -- it isn't real. "People say, my movie, it's really violent," he says. "But you know what? It's theater. It's a magic trick. It's all done with corn syrup and fake blood. All my actors are still alive. What's worse, my movie or Dick Cheney? Nobody actually died in my movie. People actually die because of Dick Cheney, and he doesn't allow you to see it."

"Hostel" opens nationally on Jan. 6.

"Fateless": My summer vacation in Buchenwald
There have been so many cinematic presentations of the Holocaust that, with the event itself receding beyond the reach of living memory, it's in danger of becoming historical porn, an exotic atrocity we consume over and over again for increasingly dubious reasons. Lajos Koltai's magisterial, understated "Fateless" avoids that trap; this is a grand claim to make, but I think it's one of the greatest of all Holocaust films. In focusing on the destiny of one young Hungarian boy, a survivor of the camps who never seems to understand quite how much he has lost at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, "Fateless" conveys on a visceral, intimate level what it was like to live in those terrible places.

As young Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy) tells one of his old neighbors after his return to Budapest, the camps were not hell. "I can't imagine hell," he says. "But the camps were real." Gyuri is the hero of Imre Kertész's semi-autobiographical novel, and while Kertész has been criticized in some quarters for what's perceived as an overly benign portrait of life in Buchenwald, I think that's a gross misinterpretation.

"Fateless" is a riveting and heartbreaking depiction of a pleasant, even ordinary childhood transformed to nightmare. As Gyuri gradually descends into a brutalized, half-dead animal condition in his odyssey to Buchenwald and back, I pressed my nails into my palms, and several times had to remind myself to breathe. If Gyuri thinks of the final hour of the day at Buchenwald, when the grueling forced labor is over and the inmates are permitted to wander about, eat and chat, as actual happiness, well, so do we. Isn't that natural? Human beings, in any context, will take such happiness as they can find, and Gyuri's increasingly desperate attempts to make a normal life in impossible circumstances are his only hope for survival.

In some ways, the very ordinariness of the Holocaust as we experience it in "Fateless" only accentuates the underlying horror. When Gyuri and a bunch of other Jewish kids his age are hauled off a factory bus and held for deportation, the policeman detaining them is a cheerful character who plays children's games with them. During the forced march through the streets of Budapest to the waiting cattle trains -- a scene we've all seen before, although here it has all its old, dreadful power -- this same cop catches Gyuri's eye for a second and gives him a little flick of the head: Get out of here, kid.

Unlike the brash young Pole played by Adrien Brody in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" (a peculiar and, to my mind, overrated picture), Gyuri lacks the confidence for this moment. He's a bright, shy boy from the dusty, polite middle class of Hungary's highly assimilated Jewish population -- wonderfully captured by Koltai in the first third of the film -- and like a lot of European Jews, didn't think anything really bad was likely to happen to him. (Persecution directed against Hungarian Jews was relatively mild until the Nazi takeover in March 1944, and far more Jews survived there than in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe.)

So a few days after the kindly cop tries to save him, Gyuri is sitting on the ground at Auschwitz with a small group of his friends. Their heads are shaved and they're wearing their new striped uniforms, and they're talking matter-of-factly about those in their trainload, too old or too young for the labor camps, who were sent straight to the gas chambers. Their one friend was a geek -- he was irritating, he wore glasses, he acted too Jewish, they say. But they'll still miss him. Before them stand the crematoria in rows, belching black smoke into the sky. That scene might be harder to take than anything in "Hostel."

Although relatively new to directing, Koltai is one of Hungary's (and the world's) leading cinematographers, having collaborated for 23 years with the great István Szabó and having shot several Hollywood films. So this is a big, beautiful, expensive production, shot in wide-screen format in a lustrous range of murky blues and grays. The Auschwitz and Buchenwald sets built for the film were nearly as big as the camps themselves (there are also impressive scenes in the wreckage of Dresden and the bombed-out areas of Budapest), and the score is one of Ennio Morricone's most powerful in years.

But "Fateless" is also an example of how to spend that money; there are some masterfully staged, indeed unforgettable, crowd scenes here -- made to stand up all night as punishment for some infraction, the Buchenwald inmates sway, bend and snap, like stalks in a field of wheat -- but the heart of the film is Marcell Nagy's extraordinary performance as the ever more skeletal Gyuli, and the fragile threads of relationship he weaves with other inmates, never knowing which of them will die next, or how. When a spirited kid he knows from Budapest, a kid who's always smoking a cigarette, crawls into bed with Gyuli one night and never wakes up, we can see a flicker of emotion -- sadness, maybe, or just revulsion -- go across Nagy's face. But his next thought is how long he can pretend the kid is sleeping, and therefore eat his rations.

"Fateless" is both a caution and a warning, and those aren't the same thing. In depicting how suddenly and completely Gyuli's world is destroyed, and the terrible energy the Nazis devoted to their project of extermination, it should remind us that the word "fascism" is not to be thrown around lightly. That's a caution. But like Gyuli and his friends, suddenly plucked from their comfortable lives and thrust into the ashes of Auschwitz, most Europeans of the 1940s didn't notice what had happened to their continent until it was too late. And that's a warning.

"Fateless" opens Jan. 6 in New York and Jan. 27 in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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