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Renowned cinematographer Lajos Koltai, whose more recent noteworthy
projects include Being Julia
and Malena, makes his directorial
debut with Fateless. The film presents a somewhat different story of the Holocaust
as experienced by a fourteen-year-old boy. It is based on Nobel-laureate Imre
novel about the fate of Hungarian Jews. Marcell Nagy plays Gyuri Koves, the
articulate, expressive, and perceptive son of a solidly middle-class Budapest Jewish
family. Fateless is a movingly and hauntingly subjective experience,
unapologetically presenting Gyuris story through his own minds eye. That the
sense he makes of his experiences are his own, uninflected by the later official Holocaust
history constructed in postwar hindsight, is what sets this film apart, adding another
thought piece to the collective understanding of what the Holocaust means.
Fateless met with some early criticism over its seeming lack of careful historical contextualiziing, a vital dimension in most accounts, fictional or historical, in recounting the demonization, ghettoization, physical removal, and extermination of European Jewry under Hitler. Close followers of history will recall that Nazi occupation came late to Hungary, only one year before the war ended. Thus, with deportations starting in spring 1944, the deportation campaign was short-lived, somewhat disorganized and far less than total. (This is depicted in Fateless.) Thus, too, many Budapest Jews were never forced out of the capital and survived more or less intact until the end of the war, up until the transfer of power to occupying Soviet Russian forces. Gyuri Kovess experiences and observations, and the particular conclusions he comes to are deftly summed up in the films titlea philosophical counter-response to the conclusion that the Holocaust was the fate of European Jewry; Gyuri concludes, with a disconcerting equanimity, that his life, at least, has proven to be "fateless."
Koltai divides his film into three acts. In the beginning, Gyuri is a beloved, but not particularly exceptional teenager, living comfortably with his extended family. He has typical social problems at school--with girls, and those arising from family politics (stemming mostly from his fathers divorce and remarriage). As the threat of Nazi occupation moves closer, family members respond in various ways--one person in total denial that anything bad will happen, another petrified by all the rumors they have heard. After a drawn-out sequence of dramatic farewell scenes, Gyuris father is sent to a "labor camp." Soon Gyurki is picked up in a random sweep of busses shuttling child laborers to an outlying factory, his life taking a radical and irrevocable change. The strange visual beauty of Fateless emerges undeniably, as one striking blue-and-silver art-deco work of art goes chugging through the barren late-autumn landscape.
The second act finds Gyuri being moved from one concentration camp to another, as conditions (physical and spiritual) progressively deteriorate. The cinematography now figures prominently in the storytelling. Large, wet snow flakes fall against winter skies, under labor camp flood lights, dancing across the camp grounds, simultaneously magical, even joyous in their beauty, but oddly foreshadowing the "black snow" (charred embers of human remains) often portrayed falling in poems and films about the death camps.
The camera frequently sees through Gyuris eyes, intimately blending moments of visual beauty (and evoked emotions of gratitude and tender mercies of fellow feeling among the inmates) with the more brutishly ugly and cruel facts of their existence. Moral tones visually stated in black-and-white shift, through specially processed color film, so that prisoners faces fade into warm, pinkish tones, death camp twilights fade into soulful, murky greens, billowing smoke enshrouds labor camp factory buildings in stark, woodblock print-like settings. A solitary Allied bomb bursts into brilliant orange flames, the color an almost cheerful reprieve from the black-and-white, day-after-day drudgery of loading and unloading train cars of stones.
Eventually Gyuri is worked nearly to death and his fever-racked skeletal body is tossed onto a cart, to be hauled off for cremation. As he lies looking back at the camp upside down, he sees not so much the horror, but the world itself (the world-as-itself, as the ever-philosophical Gyuri might argue), as if such things were normal, the rule. As he is being carted off, he seems to feel not horror, but rather a melancholic longing for that "special time" of each day, the relatively relaxed mood during the inmates dinner break, which now he will be missing. Where the story goes and what all of this could mean plays out in the third act, when Gyuri returns from death, from the concentration camps, from the life that he, as a teenager, has come to regard as normal. It is here, in the third act, and before the arrival of the Soviet occupiers, that this film reveals its disturbing and sublime gifts.
- Les Wright