Fateless Movie Review
Based on the autobiographical novel by Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz (who also wrote the screenplay), Fateless is for the most part an impressionistic story of one boy's journey through Hitler's death camps. When we first see him, the olive-skinned, shaggy-haired Gyura is your average callow teenager who doesn't seem all that interested in much besides the neighbor girl, and even when his father is sent away to the camps, can barely muster up a tear for the occasion. By happenstance, he's on a bus run by a policeman who's rounding up all the Jews he can for deportation to the camps. While being herded through the city streets to their fate, the policeman catches Gyura's eye after a few of the captives have snuck away and, ever so slightly, he cocks his head as though giving Gyura permission to escape. Frozen either through indecision or incomprehension, Gyura passes up the opportunity and is packed into the train with everyone else.
The months that follow show the inexorable stripping away of the prisoners' humanity, but without resorting to shock-film clichés. Herded from one camp to another, Gyura grows more and more skeletal, what little emotion he showed before boiling away to nearly nothing. Grey days follows one after another, the prisoners pushed through senseless tasks with sadistic abandon by their mostly Hungarian guards, the bowls of watery soup greedily sucked down, snow swirling overhead as they watch three escapees being hung.
First-time director Lajos Koltai strings these flashcard scenes together with a serene grace, his background as an accomplished cinematographer (Sunshine, Being Julia) giving him an uncommon control over his stark visual palette; if there's such a thing as bright gloom, this is it.
Kertesz' script is well served by Koltai, who gives its moral ambiguities room to maneuver and unsettle those looking for easy answers. As mentioned before, this is not a film of easy villains; there are few Nazis to point fingers at, but plenty of guilty bystanders. After Gyura's camp is liberated - and he is admonished to come to America by a Jewish-American soldier (Daniel Craig, making a sharp and notable cameo) - he finds no vindication or joy in survival, only confusion, hatred, and numbness. Alternately ignored by those who don't wish to be reminded of what happened and admonished by others to rejoice in having survived (just put the past behind you!), Gyura finds little refuge and less joy.
This is at heart an existential drama where peace is only in the simple hard truths - no matter how harsh-seeming they may be - such as when Gyura realizes the "simple secret of my universe. I could be killed anywhere at anytime." Fateless is not a necessarily hopeful film, but it's also definitely not a cynical one; it may even be a great one.
DVD extras include an interview with the screenwriter and book's author and a making-of featurette.