"I could be killed anywhere, anytime."

Release: 2005-02-10
Director: Lajos Koltai
Runtime: 140'
Screenplay: Imre Kertész
Production: Hungary/Germany/UK
Language: Hungarian
Music: Ennio Morricone
MPAA rating: R

Cast: Marcell Nagy (György), Áron Dimény (Bandi)

Plot summary: A Jewish boy in 1944 Budapest is deported and makes his acquaintance with several German labour camps.

Nobel laureate Imre Kertész adapted his own 1975 book Sorstalanság for the movie. I have not read the book so I cannot make any qualified comments on how the movie measures up to it. The critics seem to think that it did well. I had actually never heard of the film or of the book until a Hebrew philosophy professor presented it to a class as part of an inquiry into theodicy.

The film opens with György (Gyuri), age 14, taking part in a social event marking the departure of his father for a labour camp. The Hungarian Jews weren't in massive trouble until 1944, when the Germans took over. They still wore yellow stars, though, and were second-class citizens. In 1944 the Jews of Budapest were subject to arrest and deportation at any official's whim as the systematic extermination that we now call the Holocaust fastened its deadly grip on Hungary. Indeed, Gyuri finds himself intercepted on his way to work despite his "essential labourer" papers. He's put on a box car to nowhere and is taken out of Hungary. Fateless kind of picks up where Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday) left off.

The film shows the boy making his way through the Nazi camp machine. Upon someone's prompting, he lies about his age and gets assigned to labour instead of extermination. It's not a lucky break. It's just what happens. Much of the film from that point on chronicles the daily life of a prison camp inmate. Trials and tribulations come to pass but they don't happen for a reason. They just happen. And they keep happening until the end. Perhaps the most bizarre event of the whole film is Gyuri's removal to the camp hospital, which is incongruously pleasant compared to the rest of the camp.

I don't think there is anything here to qualify as a spoiler because Fateless has to be allowed to speak for itself. The protagonist survives and the camp is liberated by the Americans. He then returns to a strange, post-war Budapest and, for the most part, discovers that a lot of what was supposed to be meaningful before his arrest is meaningless after his release. The author himself, for all his candidness, resorts to the fictional life of Zeitz, where he was never sent to. Just like Gyuri, he was intially deported to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald but he was freed from the latter in 1945. The film may be more autobiographical than the book, which Kertész insists is not an autobiography, was.


You may read the movie as a chronicle of those for whom the Holocaust is not history and not memory but is a true experience in the sense that the experience, not its descriptions, are what become part of one's identity. You don't describe your experience while you're living it. You may or may not decide to describe its properties, determine its nature, or assimilate its lessons later.

Experience, at the time of its occurrence, is reality. It's not surreality, it's not art, it's not abstraction. That which lies outside the experience is the abstraction. When God is on the outside, God is an abstraction. You see some of the Jewish prisoners saying Kaddish for the hanged men but you know that each can hear only himself. No one is listening to any of them. In the film that is the moment at which your personal convictions about the divine, good, and evil are most severely questioned.

You do what you need to to survive. Values change. When Gyuri leaves his dead bunkmate in bed in order to collect his rations, he is acting both rationally and ethically to ensure his survival. Altruism and truthfulness become unnatural. The inmate Bandi, a political prisoner who befriends Gyuri, is a plain-spoken protector who is not all there mentally. He acts unselfishly and irrationally. When God seems to have abandoned the boy, the unkempt street tough takes his place as the personification of Good in a place where Good and Evil may mean very little. The definitions and faces of good and evil shift, often fleetingly, with the circumstances throughout the movie.

With the realisation that he could be killed at any time and anywhere, the protagonist's life is sort of condensed into one dimension. You either exist or you don't. You don't speculate about not existing. In the absence of a contrast to it, existence becomes rather singular. There is no fear. The reality of a camp is awful but, when awful is all you have, you get accustomed to it. What we think of as some sort of horror today was entirely mundane and the only mode of existence for the human figures of Fateless.

The Holocaust does not have a personality. It started with none and then had many. As its survivors are dying out, it has fewer and one day will have none again. The less living memory there is, the greater the possibility of it or something like it happening again. This is often described as fate. Remembrance has been elevated to something almost religious and dogmatic. It's become the secularist's definition of absolute evil. I'm inclined to believe that the Holocaust of Sorstalanság is not evil. It's godless.


Of course I doubt that I thought of any of the above during the midterm exam that followed the film. The film takes a while to sink in and it does so gradually. As it does, it unfolds a multitude of impressions that you did not get while watching it. Fateless is not Schindler's List. It is not Life is Beautiful. There is no feel-good factor. There is no Hollywood drama or vindication. There is no hero. It may not have made a difference to the film if Gyuri had died and we suddenly switched to viewing the world through another person's eyes.

The cinematography deserves special mention. It is simply sublime. The transformations between black and white and colour are not a gimmick. They're perfectly timed and executed with subletly and grace. The sets are also magnificently realistic but discreet. Even the 15-year-old Nagy's acting is mature and convincing. This is a very rewarding film for those who take the time.

"There is nothing too unimaginable to endure."

Film critic style rating, stars 'n' all: * * * * + (4.5/5)

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