Dan Fainaru in Budapest 14 February 2005
Dir. Lajos Koltai. Hung-Ger-UK. 2005. 136mins.
Initially offered a less prestigious slot at Berlin, the producers of Fateless have been proved justified in holding out for the competition slot which it was awarded hours before the festival began.
Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lajos Koltai’s (Malena, Being Julia) grim and sober debut initially seems like any other neatly calibrated, if hardly exceptional Holocaust drama - until it gradually accumulates a terrifyingly chilliness that pulls audiences through its 136 minutes.
As such it can expect not only prize recognition at Berlin but also a respectable career afterwards on both the awards podium and at sympathetic box offices.
More intimate and more affecting work than the likes of Schindler’s List and The Pianist, it strives - despite its lavish production values - to present events in as unsentimental a manner as possible.
Fateless’ potential audience should encompass cinemagoers who also watched those films, although its emotional demands on audiences and the fact it is largely non- English language may mean comparatively softer commercial returns.
No sales agent has been announced as yet for the film, which closed the Hungarian Film Week, although it is rumoured that Medusa has already taken rights for Italy.
Adapted by Nobel prize-winner Imre Kertesz from his celebrated first novel, the film centres on Gyorgy Koves (Nagy), the lively but average 14-year-old son of a divorced Jewish couple living in Budapest during the early 1940s
One day, on the way to one of the work schemes set up by the Nazi-backed regime, he is taken off a bus, put into a building with other Jews and kept there by a benevolent policeman who explains he is awaiting further orders.
At first it seems like another one of the many daily miseries visited upon the Jewish population. But as the unsuspecting prisoners are submitted to more and more investigations, so an irreversible and horrifying chain of events is set in motion.
Panic replaces uncertainty as the captives are herded into trains and sent across the border to Poland and the fatal selection that will dispatch the weak to the Auschwitz furnaces. Others, among them Gyorgy, head for Buchenwald.
Beaten, famished and tortured, the young teen tries to rationalise the horror of his existence in the camp, attempting to preserve human dignity in a place dedicated to its deprivation as his decaying body is drained of its last reserves of energy.
As the Allied forces approach and order collapses in the camp, Gyorgy is miraculously pulled from a pile of mangled corpses destined for extermination and onto which he has been slung.
Eschewing the offer of a better life in the West from one of the American soldiers (Craig in a very brief role) he heads back to Budapest and his family, on the way encountering a variety of reactions that range from misunderstanding to animosity.
In the process Koltai stresses how the Holocaust did not end with the liberation of the camps and that the abyss separating survivors from everyone else is ultimately unbridgeable.
There is no point in expecting Fateless to solve the problems that film-makers face when it comes to capturing the Holocaust on celluloid. The sense that no movie set can duplicate the awfulness of the real event, nor any actor completely disappear into any of the real-life participants’ characters, still prevails here.
The banal first half hour is hesitantly directed, and while it does cue up Gyorgy’s gradual descent into the inferno, it lacks impact in itself.
Similarly Gyorgy’s trek from Buchenwald to Budapest, including an inconclusive scene en route amid the ruins of Dresden, is useful as a transitional device but not particularly eloquent in its own right.
Fateless only really grabs its audience from when Gyorgy is taken off the bus without reason. From that point on, each ensuing episode fades into black before the next one arrives, piling up a series of unbearable moments of horror.
Such scenes are unsentimentally observed, filling the audience with dismay and culminating in Gyorgy's broken body being thrown onto a pile of other corpses whose destination is not in doubt.
Marcell Nagy very much takes centre stage in the lead and proves a perfect choice for the part. We watch as his youthful, handsome features are worn away gradually by hunger, thirst, dirt and pain while his ever larger eyes set deep in his shrinking, emaciated face, try to take in and comprehend the incomprehensible around him.
Predictably enough, given Koltai's past career, Fateless looks visually stunning, moving from a discoloured, almost sepia palette in its early stages through an increasingly monochromatic black and white, then back to sepia.
Lighting of the interior scenes is astounding and there is no better realisation of that peculiar moment of grace which exists even in the heart of darkness than the image of one brief sunset over the infernal camps.
Ennio Morricone’s score pulls a maudlin blanket over an otherwise respectful, restrained approach.
Prod cos: Magic Media Inc, EuroArts, Renegade Films, Hungarian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation, MDR, MDM, MFG, Ingenious Films, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk
Int’l sales: TBA, c/o Mark Horowitz, (1) 310 88 093 72
Exec prods: Laszlo Vincze, Bernd Hellthaler, Robert Buckler
Prod: Andras Hamori, Peter Barbalics, Ildiko Kemeny, Jonathan Olsberg
Scr: Imre Kertesz, based on his novel Sorstalansag
Cine: Gyula Pados
Ed: Hajnall Sello
Prod des: Tibor Lazar
Music: Ennio Morricone
Main cast: Marcell Nagy, Aron Dimeny, Andras M Kecskes, Joszef Gyabronka, Endre Harkanyi, Daniel Craig