Fateless: Lajos Koltai’s Directorial Debut

An honorable addition to the growing body of works about the Holocaust, Lajos Koltai’s feature directorial debut, “Fateless,” is an extremely powerful and even lyrical film.

If the film is visually stunning, it’s a result of the director’s background. An Oscar-nominated cinematographer (“Malena”), Koltai has had a distinguished career, lensing most of Istvn Szab’s pictures. (Though well-intentioned, purists might object to the overly aestheticized approach, which has a numbing effect, by design.

“Fateless” represents Hungary in this year’s Foreign-Language Oscar race. The film revisits familiar cinematic territory, albeit with a fresh angle. Indeed, inevitable comparison will be made with two other Holocaust films about survival, both Oscar-winning: Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” in 1993 and Polanski’s “The Pianist” in 2002. Nonetheless, centering on a young boy, the thematic focus, narrative strategy, and tone of “Fateless” are different.

Adapted from Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel, “Fateless” is set in 1944 Budapest, where 14-year-old Gyuri (Marcell Nagy) lives with his extended family. When the Nazis take control of the country, Gyuri’s father is sent to a concentration camp, and shortly after Gyuri himself.

A brief discussion of the political context is in order. Since Hungary was a wartime ally of the Nazis, the fate of the nation’s Jews had its own particular tragedy. The Nazis and their local collaborators began deporting Hungary’s 800,000 Jews as late as spring and summer of 1944, and then only to the countryside. However, when a Nazi-backed coup overthrew the Hungarian government in October, Eichmann began transporting Budapest’s largely assimilated Jewish community to Auschwitz.

The ordeal and ultimate survival of Gyuri are depicted in a series of quiet but mesmerizing, nearly surreal vignettes. Despite the lack of plot, or narrative momentum, the film attains cumulative power as a result of the horrors depicted (even though we have seen them before), the hallucinatory tone of the proceedings, and the elegant visual style that renders the episodes both real and surreal.

The whole film assumes the quality of a personal memory, a disturbing nightmare that continues to haunt. Veteran composer Ennio Morricone’s musical score contributes to that haunting and disturbing feeling.

Though emotional, the film stands out in its lack of sentimentality; there are no superfluous effects. Images dominate the narrative, and for long stretches of time, thew film works its magic without a single word of dialogue. Marcell Nagy, who plays the 14-year-old protagonist Gyuri, has a wonderfully expressive face for the camera.

Early on, the events are perceived and narrated from the POV of Gyuri as a schoolboy, who, coming from a middle-class assimilated family, has hard time comprehending the exact meaning of the ideological phrase, “the common Jewish fate.” Removed from school, he is assigned some wartime work, before being arrested by a single policeman. From his subjective perspective, the events are inexplicable. His ordeal during the Holocaust would clarify that concept for him, though not entirely.

In the camp, Gyuri behaves in a rational and cooperative. Shrewdly, to avoid the gas chambers, he lies that he is 16. The action moves to Buchenwald, and later to an improvised “provincial” camp where he adjusts to surroundings shaped by perpetual hunger, thirst, misery, disease, and death.

Befriended and later 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 black beret. Gyuri learns to live for the magical dinner hour and remains oddly hopeful even when he can hardly walk as a result of a bad knee.

Koltai shoots the camps as grim and gray places, completely detached from the outside world, except for the daily trains with new transports of Jews. Toward the end, the SS abandons the camp and the prisoners briefly take charge. Suddenly, the Americans are there. Making a brief but memorable impression is Daniel Craig in a cameo as a friendly American soldier, who tries to help Gyuri.

Gyuri takes a train through war-scarred Budapest, where he is regarded as a ghost. Koltai ends the film the way he began it. Running into a childhood friend, Gyuri picks up their last, pre-deportation conversation, and asks if she ever did learn what it meant to be a Jew.

Going back to Budapest is not exactly a happy journey, or one with a clear destination. As painful and intolerable as the experience in the camps was, it was at least stable and orderly and predictable, with the evening meal serving as the highlight of the day.

It’s worth noting that Kertsz’s title for his book isn’t “Fateless” but “Fatelessness;” the memoir evokes an existential state of being. The resolution, which is both powerful and ambiguous, highlights the idea behind the book’s title. Inexplicably experiencing homesickness, Gyuri recalls “the happiness of the camps,” and wonders if he should tell people about that, “if I don’t forget it myself.”