Movie Review
Fateless
2005
Director: Lajos Koltai
Cast: Marcell Nagy, Áron Dimény, Daniel Craig
B+


the most expensive Hungarian film ever made tackles that most delicate of subjects—the Holocaust. In doing so, respected cinematographer Lajos Koltai has come under fire for his bold attempt to address our collective obsession with the most significant human event of the Twentieth Century. What can we ever really know about the concentration camps without having been there ourselves? And why do we exhibit a strange, almost perverse sense of fascination with what we presume to be the worst experience a person can have? Do we listen to what survivors tell us, or does it suit our purposes better to paint our own image of hell?

The fact these questions have elicited cries of indignation would indicate that Koltai has touched a very sensitive nerve, indeed. All too often, we wish to express an opinion on a subject of which we have little or no knowledge, or what information we do have comes from second, third or fiftieth-hand sources. Is this selfishness, a basic human need to appear well-informed or simply a stubbornness to stamp our own imprint on history? As Budapest teenager Gyuri Köves discovers upon the return to his hometown after the war, opinions are, sadly, frequently removed from the facts.

Based upon Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz’s novel, Fateless is an elegiac meditation on not only what it means to be Jewish, but how an ordinary person deals with seemingly unthinkable circumstances. In a quiet, moving performance, Marcell Nagy plays a fourteen year-old who sees little point in discussing the reasons behind the persecution of Jews, instead constantly turning his collar outwards so his star is prominently displayed for all to see. He is Jewish and that is it, as far as he is concerned. No need to wade back through history for meaning or fret about what is going to befall his people. If being Jewish means that it’s only a matter of time until you end up in a work or death camp, there is nothing he can do about it, so why worry? It’s just as easy to abandon a past that you were not able to influence as it is to forget about a future that is not yet here. A bleak, unemotional response to circumstances perhaps, but more realistic and practical than anyone else in his circle. He is, after all, still a child and a future as a doctor or lawyer is just as alien and unthinkable to him as any other path.


Gyuri’s journey through a succession of famous and lesser-known camps is simply something that is happening to him and that he must deal with on an everyday level. He approaches his daily grind by becoming fascinated with the mundane, and seeking moments of respite whenever he can, revelling in the joy to be had of having a wash after a day’s crippling labour, or by turning the death of a bedfellow into a minor triumph by continuing to claim the corpse’s ration. For Gyuri, the camps are a travail to be endured until the war ends and he can return home. GI Daniel Craig is confused by the boy’s attitude, unable to understand why he does not want to make a fresh start in the U.S. The choice, to Gyuri, is as stark as life in the camps: He doesn’t know what tomorrow brings and has spent so much time purely in the present, understanding that he could die at any instant, that he cannot imagine a fate outside of where he is at that moment.

The real discomfort in Fateless lies not in the camp scenes, which are breathtakingly beautiful; Koltai bringing all his experience as a cinematographer to bear in rendering the mud of Dachau or Buchenwald as sumptuous as any Malick scenery. The troubling truth emerges when the boy returns to Budapest. Leering neighbours are fascinated with how terrible it all must have been and are unwilling to accept the fact that Gyuri not only misses the camaraderie, but also the moments of happiness he found in the camps. His loneliness now worse than ever, he hopes not to forget that he was always responsible for his own fate; that there were many moments he could have chosen differently; that his joy in the face of horror defined him as more than just another hapless victim; and that, finally, there is nothing so unimaginable that we cannot endure, be that a year in a Nazi concentration camp or twenty years trapped in a life we have not chosen for ourselves.


By: Chris Flynn
Published on: 2006-04-14
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