Adapted from Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s autobiographical novel of an Auschwitz boyhood, the Hungarian film Fateless has a remarkable absence of sentimentality. The movie is obviously artistic, but there are no cheap or superfluous effects. It’s almost mystically translucent.
Fateless is Lajos Koltai’s first film as a director, but he has a long and distinguished career as a cinematographer, including 14 films shot for István Szabó. One would expect Fateless to have a look, and it does, albeit less pictorial than impressionistic. Koltai seems to have chosen his actors largely for their faces, including the sensitive moptop Marcell Nagy, who plays the 14-year-old protagonist Gyuri. Images dominate the narrative. The film’s structure is elliptical, unfolding in a series of vignettes, beginning amid the falling leaves and the shabby, cluttered flats of a wanly enchanted Budapest.
Because Hungary was a wartime ally of the Axis, the fate of the nation’s Jews had its own particular logic. The Nazis and their local assistants didn’t begin ghettoizing and deporting Hungary’s 800,000 Jews until the late spring of 1944, and then only in the countryside. Not until a Nazi-backed coup overthrew the Hungarian government in October was Eichmann able to begin transporting Budapest’s large and largely assimilated Jewish community to Auschwitz. These events are filtered both through the autumn light and Gyuri’s schoolboy consciousness, as he ponders the meaning of the mysterious, overheard phrase “the common Jewish fate.”
There’s a rich lack of understanding as first, Gyuri’s father is drafted for forced labor and then Gyuri, who has been removed from school and assigned some sort of wartime task, is arrested by a single gendarme, swept up in a random collection of Jews. From the protagonist’s perspective, these events are not absurd so much as inexplicable. The prisoners are packed into trams and then cattle cars. For the most part, boredom and discomfort trump hysteria until they tumble onto the platform at Auschwitz. Koltai’s palette turns to pale white and green and Gyuri has the illumination that he could be killed anywhere, anytime.
A good boy, Gyuri always tries to be rational and cooperative. He locks eyes with the corpse-like, faintly smiling SS officer who makes the initial selection and, lying that he is 16, avoids the gas chamber. The action jumps abruptly to Buchenwald, and then to an improvised “provincial” camp where he adjusts, after a fashion, to a buglike immersion in misery and disease. Befriended and several times saved by a fellow Hungarian, Gyuri is rejected by the Yiddish-speaking Jews who regard him as gentile and beaten by a Gypsy kapo who wears a rakish black beret; still, he lives for the magical dinner hour and remains oddly hopeful even as he dwindles to skeletal dimensions.
Koltai films this wretched place as a universe where the sun never shines and a tin plate of watery soup is the coin of the realm; his visual ideas can be quietly audacious. The prisoners are made to stand interminably, swaying on their feet as though praying, until the stripes of their uniforms become a hypnotic pattern. Gyuri’s nighttime crawl to the latrine is shown as an epic journey through a gray sea of mud.
Fateless will be inevitably compared to Schindler’s List
and especially The Pianist; while no single scene is as harrowing as the strongest moments in either of those movies, it’s more sustained than either. The film is the least plot-driven and the most existential of Holocaust reconstructions, and its 140 minutes seem to pass in a flash. The SS abandons the camp and the prisoners briefly take charge. Suddenly the Americans are there and Gyuri finds himself taking a tram through war-scarred Budapest. For him, it’s a sort of waking dream; the citizens regard him as they would a ghost. Running into a childhood friend, he picks up their last, pre- deportation conversation, and asks if she ever did learn what it was to be a Jew. (The answer, of course, is no.)
Kertész’s actual title isn’t Fateless but Fatelessness—the book evokes a state of being and, like all great writing, is essentially unfilmable. There’s no way to fully capture Gyuri’s voice—his alertness, good nature, and bizarrely calm Candide-like innocence. Yet as restrained as Koltai is, he sets up the novel’s unforgettable ending. Experiencing a shock of homesickness, Gyuri recalls “the happiness of the camps” and wonders if he should tell people about that, “if I don’t forget it myself.” This isn’t a movie that I’d have thought possible; it’s an auspicious opening for the new year.