Imagery key to Holocaust movie’s tale

Imagery key to Holocaust movie’s tale


Beautiful photography, a moving score, flawless acting and skillful direction combine to create a haunting film version of Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz’s true story of a young teen’s Holocaust survival. The stately beauty of the images strangely but powerfully underscores the compelling Hungarian film Fateless.

Fateless is scheduled to open at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac on March 17 and it is in Hungarian, German and English, with English subtitles.

More than simply another Holocaust movie, it is a look at the survival of the human spirit in inconceivable circumstances and even the persistence of beauty, while asking philosophically how this could happen. Directed by Lajos Koltai, himself a renowned cinematographer, Fateless takes a visually lyrical, unsentimental but moving look at the Holocaust experience of a 14-year-old Hungarian Jewish boy (Marcell Nagy), following him from early in the Nazis’ reign until the early aftermath of the war. The fact that Fateless uses beautifully composed, artistically breathtaking photography to present something so horrific seems counter-intuitive until one reflects on how art and painting have done similar things already.

Fateless is based on Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel of his survival of the Holocaust, and Kertesz adapted his novel for the film. This is Lajos Koltai’s directorial debut but his award-winning resume as a cinematographer includes Mephisto, Being Julia, Malena, and Max with John Cusack. Gyula Pados was the cinematographer on this film.

With voice-over narration by the young protagonist, we enter the world of 14-year-old Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy). Gyuri lives with his father (Janos Ban) and stepmother (Judith Schell) in Budapest, and he is pleasant boy with an even temper and sunny viewpoint. While he is obedient and responsible with his family, he is also well-liked and mischievously playful with his friends. He is a quiet and easy-going boy, not someone who must be the center of attention.

In a way, the story starts like many classic boys’ adventure stories, with the loss of a parent and transport into a strange world, but it is a horrific adventure. When his father’s business is confiscated and he receives notice to report to a labor camp, family and friends gather for a sort of going away party, telling themselves he will be back soon. When Gyuri asks why they do not just flee, the adults tell him that it is wrong to resist because it is the fate of the Jews to suffer for their past sins. The statement lingers like a chill in the air, while Gyuri politely smiles and bows to the wisdom of his elders.

Eventually, Gyuri is separated from his family and shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then eventually to a series of other concentration camps including Buchenwald.

With its personal tale of survival, Fateless is far closer to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist than Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The war came late to Hungary and many bewildered Jews there thought the restrictions would be temporary or mild. More Hungarian Jews in Budapest also survived the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Rather than focusing on the more usual images of concentration camp brutality, Fateless gives us day-to-day survival from one boy’s point-of-view, and people dying by inches, while other acts of violence are implied off-screen. When the Gyuri and his teen friends line up for intake inspection at Auschwitz, one camp inmate whispers to the boys that they need to say they are 16. The boys giggle and jostle each other as they pass through, as if they made a sports team, but one of their friends, a smaller boy with glasses, does not make the cut and their smiles fade as they watch him herded off with the group presumably destined for the gas chamber.

While Gyuri passively accepted his family’s comments about fate when his father is sent away, later in the concentration camp, he concludes he has no fate. Yet he finds moments of humanity, in the kindness of another Hungarian, Bandi Citrom (Aron Dimeny), who takes him under his wing, and even in an appreciation of the quality of light in the late afternoon.

Stunningly beautiful photography frames shots as if they are paintings, giving us a series striking images. The film starts with muted tones of color, almost sepia tone, and slowly fades to monochromatic images. Bits of color re-emerge as bits of humanity peek through the boy’s experience. Koltai also wanted to make the film as realistic as possible and built sets to recreate the locations, rather than use special effects. The cast and crew lived in these historically precise worlds, nearly as large as the real labor camps, during filming and the commitment to accuracy shows up in the images on screen.

The musical score not only evokes the time period but underscores the jaw dropping images, like gravely beautiful paintings unfurled across the screen. Acting in the film is as outstanding as the remarkable photography. Koltai demanded great sacrifice from his cast, including putting his young star on a medically-supervised starvation diet. Production of the film was halted midway due to an unexpected lack of funds but this actually worked to the film’s benefit. Young Marcell Nagy, who was going through puberty, returned to filming taller and more mature-looking. Since the film was shot largely in sequence, the young actor’s older and harder look worked for the character in his concentration camp ordeal and afterwards. His face goes from the open beauty of a child, to a more angular, adult face, and the young actor also grew several inches over filming. Young Marcell Nagy does a wonderful job, with much of the story told by the expressions on his face, as we see this boy change from the sunny, innocent good son to a darker, skeptical adult, who will forever be marked by his experience of coming of age in a concentration camp.

Finely crafted performances in supporting roles include Dimeny and English actor Daniel Craig, as an American sergeant Gyuri meets after the camp is liberated.

The film is full of small moments of irony and tragedy, made more powerful by the everyday approach. The carefully crafted dialogue, the subtly turned phrases and the powerful but beautiful images make this one of the best films about the Holocaust, a survivor’s tale like no other.