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Worth A Look: 6.25%
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1 review, 10 user ratings

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by PaulBryant

"As affecting as cinema can hope to be."
5 stars

It will be a sad and dangerous day when moviegoers scoff at the opportunity to see “another Holocaust picture”. Though certain everyday folk – and even certain film critics – are bound to sigh at the prospect of another long investigation into the particular horrors of the genocide, the amount of material and stories about that period which need to be seen and heard have hardly been exhausted. And it will be just as sad if this new picture Fateless is lazily compared to Schindler’s List, as – though it deals with the specifics of Nazi concentration camps near the end of WWII – it is a far more personal, existential study of one particular Hungarian teenager’s journey through a real-life hell.

Beginning in 1944 as a Jewish family in Budapest is half-celebrating, half-mourning the patriarch’s last day as a free man; he’s been ordered to work in a Nazi hard-labor camp. His son Gyuri (newcomer Marcell Nagy) – whose point-of-view dictates the visual flow of the film – has to simultaneously deal with losing his father and fearing for his own safety in a time when getting on the wrong bus could mean getting off in a concentration camp.

Indeed, this is precisely what happens to our young protagonist. The defining moment of his life comes all too soon after a close relative had warned Gyuri that his “carefree childhood days are now over.” Little did the elder man know his comment would be the understatement of the century for the 14 year-old, who gets stopped by a lone SS officer while on a Hungarian bus towards his job as a bricklayer and is promptly ordered – along with anyone else wearing a Star of David – to get off. The relatively calm Nazi quickly huddles the Jews into a nearby barn where he awaits his instructions to ship them off in a cattle car to Auschwitz. Just like that, Gyuri’s fate has changed.

Upon arrival at the camp – “Auschwitz?” “Never heard of it,” they say – Gyuri soon comes to the dreadfully accurate conclusion that “[he] could be killed at any time, anywhere.” Yet his stop in Auschwitz is only a brief one, as he is soon shuttled off to Buchenwald to spend the remainder of the war barely surviving through brutal labor and a sustenance of moldy bread and gruel. The slightly warm and faded images director Lajos Koltai created to diffuse Budapest have now turned cold and monochromatic, mirroring Gyuri’s physical and emotional transformation from a curly haired teenager to a shaven, emaciated number in the Nazi’s record book.

The film’s exceptionally evocative photography is hardly surprising seeing as Koltai has been a cinematographer for some 25 years before debuting as a director here, and I can say without apprehension that as far as the movies I’ve seen go, the Holocaust has never been more harrowingly photographed. The black and white of Schindler’s List was appropriate for summoning documentary war footage back into our minds, but Koltai utilizes the advantages of a color palette in a manner black and white could never allow. We see effects of Gyuri’s journey out of Hungary mainly in flesh tones; from the healthy, golden hues of the first act in Budapest, to the gunmetal excoriations of the prisoners’ faces in Buchenwald. The effect is devastating. Koltai and his lenser Gyula Pados have created what I would describe without hyperbole as an unerring cinematographic spectacle.

But the striking pictures aren’t the only reason this is a fine film, not by a long shot. Adapted from 2002 Nobel Prize winner Irme Kertisz’s semi-autobiographical novel, the film creates in Gyuri a beautiful innocence which makes his story all the more heartbreaking. He doesn’t understand what his fellow Jews back home mean when they talk about the “Jewish fate”, nor can he comprehend the irrationality of the concentration camps that cause one of Gyuri’s friends to be spared while another is slaughtered without discretion.

And though we know the slaughtering is going on, Fateless doesn’t focus so much on murder, death, or dying, but on the individual struggle to live amongst the awareness of these things. A boy standing next to Gyuri in a queue at Auschwitz doesn’t look quite old enough to pass for sixteen, and all of a sudden he’s taken away by the SS and never seen again. No dramatics, he’s just gone. By not depicting the particulars of the killing and brutal torture that went on in Nazi camps, Fateless conveys its horror through our imagination of what we don’t see – which is, of course, just how Gyuri experiences things. The effect is genuinely terrifying in a way that the specifics couldn’t achieve.

Akin to how The Pianist was strictly from Adrian Brody’s viewpoint, we are simultaneously shocked by what Gyuri sees, and – due to our own personal knowledge of the Holocaust – frightened by how he may perceive it. Something as basic as walking in single file to be inspected by an officer carries with it all sorts of emotion, as we have far more knowledge about the Nazi’s than the boy does, and so await the inspection knowing how crucial it is that Gyuri handle the situation correctly. By assuming we have enough prior knowledge of the genocide to know what is happening off-screen, Fateless succeeds brilliantly in trying to somehow convey to us the terror of the real-life events as experienced by each individual. Since we can never imagine what this would have really been like, a movie that tries to tackle someone’s subjective experience is crucial – especially when it is made as brilliantly as Fateless is.

Though the images from the film are certainly what stick in the mind, the scripting of Fateless is equally superb. Notice an early argument between two of Gyuri’s Jewish neighbors about whether the boy should take the bus or the train to work. It could seem a ridiculous bit of comic relief, with the two geriatrics shouting “Train!”, “Autobus!” back and forth at each other, but then we see the fantastic result of that seemingly inconsequential decision: the lone officer orders him off and promptly sends him en route to Buchenwald. A simple, typically irrelevant decision changes the boy’s life for evermore.

Fateless is a superb film by a man who looks to have all the earmarks of being a superb director. You know Koltai is doing something right when he can make a movie about the Holocaust that is both realistic, genuinely terrifying, and emotionally disturbing while using literally BUCKETS less blood than one of the recent horror-schlock debacles of the Saw/Hostel variety. Or perhaps that says something more about the state of our mainstream movies these days…

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originally posted: 02/04/06 18:09:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2005 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/04/08 Charles Tatum On par with "The Pianist" 5 stars
12/22/06 William Goss The cinematography's warm, the characters cold, and the territory familiar. 3 stars
11/19/06 JeromeBosch Hauntingly passionate, unforgettable and superb piece of work. 5 stars
10/25/06 Carol Baker Totally Informative. The must see film on Auschwitz. 5 stars
10/07/06 Caren Ferster Excellent film. The cast, cinematography and musical score are fantastic 5 stars
6/01/06 Caren ferster Excellent film. The case and cinematography are awesome. 5 stars
10/13/05 peter balla wonderful 5 stars
9/16/05 Dana Amazing film 5 stars
8/23/05 Stanley Very moving, full of heart 5 stars
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  DVD: 09-May-2006



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