Fateless (Sorstalansag) Review
Budapest, 1944, and 14-year old Gyuri (Nagy) is on his way home from school for the last time. His father (Ban) is being shipped off to a labour camp and the family are gathering for a farewell dinner. From now on Gyuri will fill his father’s shoes, looking after the family shop and his stepmother (Schell). At the meal, an elderly relative tells Gyuri that the Jews are being punished by God for their sins, and that his ‘carefree childhood days are over’.
Setting out for work, Gyuri is uncertain whether to go by bus or by train, and by, as Lemony Snicket would have it, a series of unfortunate events, he ends up being pulled off the bus by a rather dim rural policeman. Rounded up and marched off, Gyuri finds himself on a freight train to Poland, to serve as forced labour in the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, before ending up at a smaller, and less notorious facility, Zeitz, in Germany.
So far, so familiar, you may be thinking. But what sets Fateless apart from other films set in the Holocaust is its disinterest in the typical shock factor brutality of earlier films. Life in the camps is horrible, but it’s a mundane, petty horror. There’s nothing terribly dramatic about constant hunger, hard work and misery – it’s presented almost as the natural order of things, within the camp. This is actually more horrifying – it feels like a deeply unpleasant, sort of extreme boarding school, rather than a Nazi death camp. Gyuri expresses this himself – he becomes institutionalised by life in the camp, like someone who has worked at the BBC too long, or someone sentenced to life inside – he even misses the place.
The cinematography and use of colour is breathtaking. The early Budapest scenes are sepia in tone, but as Gyuri’s hope fades, and his life is reduced to his next meal, the colour bleeds away until, at his lowest ebb, the colour palette is almost monochrome. The gradual reintroduction of colour is less a return of hope than the possibility of survival. There are moments of real beauty in the camp, too – sunset in the yard, framing suffering with a cool glow. The sets too are amazing – not just the camps but the post-war ruins of Dresden and Budapest.
The film takes a nihilistic approach to the Holocaust, neither seeking to excuse or blame, not really asking ‘why’. Various mentors and well-meaning passersby offer their commentary on what Gyuri is going through – the optimistic Bandi Citom (Dimeny) who saves Gyuri’s life; the older Kollman (Harkany); an American soldier (Daniel Craig, in a brief but distracting cameo) – but he cannot relate to anything that they say. He has lost all sense of his own humanity, he forgets his own name – all he cares about is his next meal, going so far as not to tell anyone that his bunkmate is dead so he can have his rations.
At the heart of Fateless is the performance of Marcell Nagy, who is in almost every scene. His composure is incredible, and he’s only 15. There are some shoots you can tell would be fun to be on – Ocean’s Eleven, for example – and then there are some that you imagine being just awful – Fateless is one such – corpses, mud, rain and misery. But Gyuri has a dry line in wit – after his stint in the cr?me of death camps, Zeitz is a bit of a comedown – ‘provincial’ he says in the spare voiceover.
Visually beautiful, starkly nihilistic in spirit, Fateless thankfully bears no resemblance to Roberto Benigni’s schmaltzy Life is Beautiful. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking, often painful film.
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