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Fateless
cast: Marcell Nagy

director: Lajos Koltai

134 minutes (12) 2003
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Altra DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Fateless (aka: Sorstalanság), the first director credit by cinematographer Lajos Koltai, based on the quasi-autobiographical work by Imre Kertesz from 1975, is a remarkable work for two reasons. First, that it is such an assured and confident debut (Koltai is currently working on a second film, Evening) and, secondly, that it offers us a fresh, distinctive view of the Holocaust. It's the story of a young Hungarian Jew, György Köves (Marcell Nagy) caught up in the deportations to the death camps, shortly after his father is called up for forced labour on his own account. Köves is the younger member of a wealthy family who, despite the evidence of Nazi intentions mounting up around them, still believe things will turn out for the best. ("Would it drop or wouldn't it?") After being almost casually pulled off a morning bus by policemen making a local round-up, added to the army of deportees by train, and passing though Auchwicz and Buchenwald, Köves ends up in a smaller labour camp where his deprivations begin in earnest. Most of the film happens within the camp and focuses on the experiences of the young protagonist. Just as important, however, is the last part of the narrative, where he returns home.

Critics have compared Fateless to such other award winning films around the same subject, notably Robert Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (aka: La Vita è bella, 1997), and Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993). While in his interview on the present disc Koltai doesn't mention Benigni's comedy of doom, in passing he does cite the Spielberg, making it clear that Fateless is, to some degree at least, a riposte. For the director, Schindler's List is "a mistake for those who know what really happened" is his view, which represents "no victory for humanity." The determined un-sentimentality of Koltai's film reflects that view, something which he goes as far as to transpose formally into a particular editing technique - an approach that audiences, more used to a cosy and somewhat predictable view of the Holocaust, will find striking. Koltai's treatment of narrative in his film, characteristically breaking down stark events into short, impressive scenes that fade to black, he terms "a series of etudes." Such a treatment serves to isolate the protagonists in time, away from the emotionality that a more connected continuity encourages. Indeed for Koltai "time is the... terrible... sentence," and the main motive behind his film. Put simply, it means his film has great power precisely through this denial of the usual response.

An easy criticism of Fateless is that conditions of the camp are shown as persistently harrowing, but rarely explicitly violent. Köves is starved, slapped and humiliated, but rarely does the viewer see an on-screen killing, although the stench of the crematoria is omnipresent. So much is real horror left unseen in fact that, at the close of the film, upon his return there's a scene where Köves is quizzed about the existence of gas chambers by a doubtful citizen at his home station. As a confirmation it is unnecessary for the audience, as we've seen them earlier, and one suspects that the importance of this brief exchange is instead to assert, once and for all, that Köves acknowledges the reality of the horror he's seen. Whether or not such epic tragedy, and his involvement in it, has enriched his humanity, a la Spielberg, is another matter. By the end, Köves thinks back to his experience almost nostalgically, to the camps where "life was cleaner and simpler" and "where there's nothing too unimaginable to endure."

As one might expect from an acclaimed cinematographer, much of Fateless looks superb. Whether its snowflakes, floating inside the cattle trucks that speed the Hungarian Jews to their fate like millions of spirits already departed, or the field of camp mates, paraded mercilessly in the heat, wavering in their distinctive striped uniforms, Koltai's eye creates haunting moments which remain with the viewer long after the closing credits. Arguably such poetry detracts from the grim reality of the camps in which a good deal of the film is set; but a good deal of the film is shot in muted colours, a blanched scheme, almost as if the warmth of life has bled out into genocide.

Performances are generally excellent, notably that of Nagy. Interviews on the disc show the young actor's nervousness at some of the more demanding scenes (and the increasing time required spent in make up as his on screen physical deterioration continues) but he plays a role which takes him from the dining room of the family home of Budapest to the death carts of Zief, without faltering. Fateless is an international co-production between Hungary, German and England. All three languages make their appearance, and so - incidentally - does the new James Bond, Daniel Craig, as Köves' liberation approaches. Here playing a concerned GI, who strongly suggests the boy seeks out a new life and a university place in the west, Craig makes a brief, if effective impression. As it turns out Köves' ultimate decision is characteristic of a film that favours reality over idealism.

But for those who seek the unrelenting grimness of camp life depicted as in, say, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1970), or the memorable depiction of the hardening of innocence into vengeful shock (Come And See), Fateless will doubtless prove a slight disappointment. Ennio Morricone's excellent score notwithstanding, which gives events here an occasionally pathetic sheen, this is a film which in many ways raises more issues and questions than it answers, and certainly offers no stereotypical picture of a ghastly time. Instead, by asking the audience to question preconceptions, it stakes claim to being one of the more important Holocaust dramas of our time.

The DVD includes an excellent transfer of the film, and a trailer, together with interviews with the director and author in which they discuss the travails of getting the production off the ground, the chequered history of the original novel, as well as the self conscious historical revisionism of the piece.
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