A Hungarian Jewish adolescent survives three WWII concentration camps in the long-gestating, profoundly moving drama “Fateless.” Exquisitely modulated and superbly mounted, the directing debut of skilled cinematographer Lajos Koltai went through an extended, unpredictable production history to emerge as a genuinely new way of looking at the Holocaust that is markedly different in tone from other such stories including “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Positive word-of-mouth from its closing night premiere at the 36th Hungarian Film Week and subsequent high-profile fest berths will lead to vigorous business worldwide and a long shelf life for pic that speaks to a more profound dimension of the human condition.
First published in 1975 and the debut novel of camp survivor Imre Keresz (who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002), “Fateless” the movie preserves and expands upon its structure of short vignettes revolving around 14-year-old Gyura Koves (Marcell Nagy), a character of almost Chauncey Gardiner-like serenity. First seen with his extended family as his father (Janos Ban) is stripped of his Budapest business prior to being shipped off to what they believe is a forced labor camp, the boy is told by an older relative that “God has inflicted” Jewish persecution “upon us for our sins” and, more ominously, “your carefree childhood days are over.”
Before leaving, dad makes the boy promise to resist any urge to return to his birth mother and stand by his stepmother (Judit Schell). But, neither woman is ever seen again. Shortly thereafter, Gyura is plucked from a bus by a thick-witted rural policeman who at first seems to be rounding up Jews for his own private amusement. Soon, however, Gyura is thrown with hundreds of others and herded into freight cars.
Following the rather sluggish set-up, film follows the teenager, who grows increasingly gaunt and sickly even as he retains a remarkably serene poise, as he is sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald death camps before landing at the smaller Zeitz labor facility in Germany. “More provincial,” he offers by way of explanation in a dispassionate, sparingly employed narration.
Along the way he is befriended by numerous strangers (including Aron Dimeny’s optimist and Endre Harkany’s patriarch), who impact the boy but inevitably disappear. When the war ends, an American soldier (Daniel Craig) tries to persuade him to go anywhere but Hungary. “There’s nothing too unimaginable to endure,” explains Gyura upon his return to Budapest.
What elevates “Fateless” to a riskier level in confronting the horrors of the Holocaust is its makers’ clear disinterest in the shock-value brutality employed by other directors to illustrate the ordeal. To be sure, the prisoners are mistreated and abused, many sequences are genuinely harrowing and the cumulative effect is profoundly disturbing.
Yet a certain distancing stylization permeates the story, typified by visual details of life in the camps that would be lyrical if they didn’t frame so much human suffering. At two distinct points, Gyura even gazes firmly yet quietly into the camera, directly involving viewers in the unfolding tragedy.
When the narration, distinctive rhythm or Enno Morricone’s sweeping score threaten to distract from the story, audiences are pulled back in by a technical package of breathtaking breadth and detail. Tibor Lazar’s evocative, large-scale production design encompassed work in 10 Hungarian and one German town to recreate not only three distinct camps, but the post-war ruins of Dresden and Budapest as well. Lenser Gyula Pados (“Kontroll”) employs a subtly evocative color palette that begins with rich sepia tones but gradually becomes nearly monotone as hope fades with the light.
An active, distinguished cinematographer who was Oscar-nommed for Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malena” and has shot some 14 films for Istvan Szabo (including “Sunshine,” with its more explicit camp sequences), Koltai reveals himself as a director equally adept at intimate character drama and resonant large-scale tableaux.
Young Nagy, in only his second film — and first theatrical feature — leads a sizeable principal cast of Magyar screen and tube vets who offer short, pungent characterizations.
Punctuated by various funding crises, principal photography encompassed a total of 59 days in three phases stretching back to December 2003.