World War Two is buried deep in the popular psyche of the Western world, and for many years has been a constant source of inspiration for movie makers. The Nazis have provided villains to all genres, from the light comedy of Indiana Jones to the decidedly tougher Schindler’s List. Fateless, which is definitely closer to the latter, adds yet another movie to this stable.
It charts the plight of Gyuri Kves (Marcell Nagy), one of around 438,000 Hungarian Jews to be deported to the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau between during the latter stages of the war. The day after bidding an emotional farewell to his father, himself departing for a labour camp, gangly teenager Gyuri is whipped off the bus on the way to work along with any other Jews, all identified by the yellow stars on their blazers. With thousands of his fellows he is sent off to the madness of the camps, the forced labour, the freezing cold, the starvation rations, the sickness and death.
The people he meets come and go, and help or hinder him in equal measure, and as he moves from camp to camp he descends into an almost dreamlike state of delirium. Though he survives, and returns to Budapest, his life has been changed for ever. His friends and family treat him with awkwardness and suspicion, unable to understand what he has been through or how he dealt with it. In the end, he finds neither his Hungarian blood nor his Jewish faith a satisfying answer for his fate.
The film ignores the wider sweep of the war, and you are pretty much left to guess at the dates. Based on the 2002 novel by concentration camp survivor, and Nobel Prize laureate, Imre Kertsz, it is truly desperate stuff at times, and not for the faint hearted. Watching Gyuri scrambling pleading for a dead boy’s soup ration with maggots crawling out of his knee is gripping and gruesome in equal measure.
Without resorting to much actual gore or violence, first time director Lajos Koltai has managed an extremely powerful and effective retelling of the horrors of the concentration camps, as well as the humanity that remains. The cinematography is fantastic, and when Gyuri is freezing cold or crawling through mud in the pouring rain in a small way you can go through it yourself. As he is slowly shunted around Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz, the scope of this tragedy gradually unfurls but, thankfully, Koltai doesn’t waste time with demonisation or blame, preferring to let the characters speak for themselves. It’s a portrait of human frailty and resilience, a highlight of the highs and lows people can reach, and it breathes humanity and thus realism into the most inhumane of acts.
Koltai does run out of time a little towards the end, and the difficult homecoming is a little rushed over. It seems harsh to criticise him because keeping movies under two hours is almost always a good idea, but here I would have been willing to sit through a bit more. Nevertheless, if you’re in the mood for it, this will be a gripping, difficult and moving watch. Excellent stuff.