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Perversely Beautiful and Profoundly Moving

Based on Nobel-Prize winning author Imre Kertész's semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless ("Sorstalanság") is a Holocaust drama that's both perversely beautiful and simultaneously moving, a combination that, at least superficially, seems contradictory. It isn't, due in large part, to the Marcell Nagy's standout performance as the central character, Gyuri Köves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew who, after losing his father to a forced labor camp, is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, two of the most notorious concentration (or, more accurately, "death") camps in Western history.

Nazi-occupied Hungary, 1944. Gyuri's Jewish family, once comfortably middle class, strains to adjust to the new status quo. Gyuri, though, seems more interested in spending time with his upstairs neighbor, a girl he obviously fancies, than his father or his stepmother. Gyuri's father has been ordered to report to a forced labor camp the next day. As Gyuri looks on dispassionately his father's friends and neighbors hold a going away party. Not unexpectedly, his family's friends are less than candid about his father's likely fate in the labor camp. After his father's departure, Gyuri is given the responsibility to care for her (despite his biological mother's protestations).

Gyuri is assigned to work at a local factory, but a superceding order sends him to the first of several concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Luck and a well-chosen lie save Gyuri from the gas chamber, but his experiences turn from fortunate, relatively speaking, to far worse, when he's forced to experience life in a concentration camp, e.g., cold, wet weather, a shortage of warm clothing, backbreaking physical labor, starvation, and illness. At another concentration camp, a prisoner, Bandi Citrom (Áron Dimény), helps Gyuri improve his chances of survival by looking out for Gyuri's well being and sharing some hard-learned tips. As starvation and illness take their toll, Gyuri must contend with a loss of faith, in himself and in his Jewish identity (which he slowly, if tangentially, learns to appreciate).

Story wise, Fateless contains the familiar narrative tropes found in Holocaust literature (all of them, of course, grounded in experience), from the initial scenes of a family struggling under the Nazis and their collaborators, through the scenes of leave-taking and separation, and through the central character's humiliating, anguish-filled experiences in the concentration camps. Eventually, the central character survives the concentration camps through a combination of perseverance, altruism, and, most importantly, luck. In Fateless, however, Gyuri's journey doesn't conclude as expected with the liberation of the concentration camp by the Allies, but continues on, covering his journey back to a now unfamiliar Budapest where he encounters non-comprehending friends and acquaintances.

As deeply personal as Fateless was to Kertész, and presumably, cinematographer-turned-director Lajos Koltai, Fateless is also episodic (as frequent fades-to-black suggest), and centering Fateless on a passive, non-verbal central protagonist, becomes problematic, especially given the 2 hour, 20 minute running time. Paradoxically, though, the last part of Gyuri's journey back home feels the most rushed and underdeveloped, with minimal time given to Gyuri's reunion with his family's friends or his upstairs neighbor.

Fateless' cumulative emotional impact depends on the accumulation of visual detail and performance. Koltai's previous experience as a cinematographer is evident in every frame. He composes individual shots with a classical emphasis on symmetry, harmony, and geometrical precision. For example, Koltai films the men inside the concentration camps via long shots, overhead crane shots, and tracking shots. The most dynamic scene in the film is also the most tense, as the men are forced to endure long hours standing at attention. They stand and sway in exhaustion as night shifts into morning and morning into day. Fateless' dramatic shortcomings would be all the more evident minus Marcell Nagy's subtle, expressive performance as the long-suffering, increasingly emaciated Gyuri.

Koltai's approach to filming Kertész's novel is certainly open to the claim that, in emphasizing beautiful imagery he marginalizes or aestheticizes the real suffering experienced by concentration camp survivors. It's true, up to a point, although Kertész, who wrote the screenplay, would probably disagree. By privileging Gyuri's perspective, and his reactions throughout the film, however, Koltai brings the aesthetics down to a less abstract, more human level, one that ultimately helps to create emotional engagement with Gyuri's plight and through him, a deeper, albeit limited, understanding of Gyuri's (actually Kertész's) experiences.

Perhaps Koltai is making a larger point through his visual style, that finding beauty and, therefore, meaning, in even the most squalid, inhumane conditions, is intrinsic to human nature (and thus offering a measure of optimism, however undeserved). Gyuri hints at something similar late in the film when he expresses a nostalgia for the simple, ordered routines of camp life and his now lost friends (and ironically describes his experiences as "natural").

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars