Fateless (Sorstalanság)

Hungary (2005) Dir. Lajos Koltai

Films about the Holocaust aren’t meant to be enjoyed in the same way as action thrillers or comedies yet can be enriching through their educational value. Setting Fateless apart from other films on this topic is being based on the semi-autobiographical Nobel prize winning novel by Holocaust survivor Imre Kertész.

Acting as the vessel for Kertész’s story is 14 year-old Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy), a Hungarian Jew forced to find work at a brickyard after his father Apa (János Bán) is sent to a labour camp. On his way to work one day, a policeman stops the bus Gyuri is on, ordering all Jewish passengers to get off, then escorts them to a nearby hut. After a long wait, they are taken to the train station and bundled onto a train heading to Auschwitz.

Upon arriving in Auschwitz, the groups are divided and Gyuri is among those transferred to a labour camp in Buchenwald, where the Jews endure a hellacious existence under Nazi command. Gyuri finds he has to abandon his callow naiveté and grow up fast if he is to survive the camp, switching off his emotions as daily horrors unfold before his eyes.

There is no getting round the fact that anyone making a Holocaust movie, be it fictional or sourced from genuine accounts, needs to be careful when deciding the tone of the film – if they are too sympathetic towards they are whitewashing the severity of the trauma suffered by the victims; if they get are graphic in depicting the atrocities it becomes tantamount to exploitation.

Kertész adapted the screenplay from his novel and was present on set during filming so we can assume he wouldn’t allow Fateless to be a sensationalist fluff piece, especially as this was the directorial debut for former cinematographer Lajos Koltai. I’m sure many will compare this adaptation to the novel, and maybe even suggest we read it instead, but reports that Kertész was so overwhelmed when he saw the Buchenwald set he had to leave gives some credence to the verisimilitude of Koltai’s vision.

With the story being told through the eyes of young boy and narrated by his older self in a voice that is eerily calm and dispassionate, one can look at this as a brutal coming-of-age tale that nobody should ever have to undergo. Gyuri was one of the lucky ones in being transferred to Buchenwald but he would have been luckier had he not been sent there at all.

Ironically, Gyuri only came to be on the bus because two Jewish elders were arguing whether the train or bus was the quickest and safest way to get to the brickyard, and unfortunately for Gyuri, he chose the latter. It is interesting to note that despite a group of forty plus Jews, men and boys, being rounded up and only one policeman, that one of them suggested they overpowered him and make a run for it.

This passiveness might explain why Hitler targeted the Jews and not a denomination more likely to retaliate but does reveal why they never once stood up for themselves even after the suffering in the camps. They took their beatings, starvation, humiliation, and mental torture with a resignation bordering on martyrdom, likely to frustrate modern audiences used to heroes fighting back but instead is a reflection of their inner strength.

Despite the title, fate is very much the core theme of the story and Gyuri in particular is driven by the mature idea that this is his fate and he has to ride it out, and he is not alone in this thinking. This makes it hard to watch as we are aching for someone to snap and fire back even if it is a fruitless gesture, but everyone, young and old, takes each hardship as it comes because that’s their life now.  

No-one even questions why the Jews are being singled out again accepting it as another daily trial of being Jewish. Before he is taken away, Gyuri drives a female friend to tears by asking her to think about what it means to be Jewish because she didn’t understand why they were forced to wear a yellow star. By the time Gyuri gets to camp, there are no yellow stars and everyone’s name has been replaced by a number.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Gyuri returns home once the camps are liberated by the Americans (Daniel Craig plays a US soldier) but life by no means is any better as so much has changed. His past is gone and people can’t understand what Gyuri has been through, making his outlook philosophically twisted as to what “home” and “freedom” is in a country where anti-Semitism is still rife.

Marcell Nagy turns in a remarkably mature performance as Gyuri, essaying the change from gawky kid to gaunt, pallid survivor of immense misery believably with a little help from human biology. The film was halted for a several months during which time Nagy hit puberty, grew taller and his voice broke, helping the passage of time look genuine.

The evocative musical score comes from the legendary Ennio Morricone but arguably the most striking aspect of the presentation is the use of a gradually fading colour palette, beginning with a nostalgic sepia tint that eventually ebbs away to near monochrome, with the barest hint of colour surfacing to indicate hope.

As a survivor’s tale it doesn’t feel like one; Gyuri is fated to continue facing hardship for being Jewish, alone in knowing the abject suffering and trauma of the camps that no-one else can. The closing monologue hits hard but not in a depressing way but in thoughtful way to frame the perspective Gyuri’s thoughts comes from.

Fateless is a powerful demanding film that could be shown in schools to educate the young on the Holocaust. It’s a frank, personal, and above all human insight on a dark, dehumanising experience nobody should ever have to endure again.