‘Fateless’: Beauty in a Boy’s Concentration Camp Experience

Directed by Lajos Koltai, ‘Fateless’ is an artistic portrayal of the Holocaust in which traces of beauty are seen in a barren landscape of death, cruelty and helplessness. The story’s screenplay, by Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz, is itself adapted from Kertesz’ semiautobiographical novel.
In 1944 Gyuri Koves (played by 15-year-old Marcell Nagy) lives in Budapest, Hungary and is 14 years old. He is indifferent to his family’s Jewish heritage and is relatively unfazed when he overhears ominous talk of his father being taken away by Nazis. The protagonist of ‘Fateless,’ Gyuri is polite, quiet and is stolid in his lack of emotional expression.
When asked if he has prayed for his father, he says ‘no.’ As an elder helps him through a prayer, Gyuri’s attention is diverted by a girl he likes who lives in a nearby apartment.
Since Hungary was not profoundly affected by the war until near the end, an increasing number of restrictions are being imposed on Gyuri and his family, compromising their way of life. Eventually, Gyuri and other male Hungarian Jews heading to work are taken from a bus and forced on a difficult journey which eventually leaves the captives at a German concentration camp.
Watching the squalid traveling conditions and demeaning treatment which Gyuri and others endured, I sympathized not with the unemotional Gyuri, but with the fact that he was a teenager whose fate had been forced under the power of the Nazis.
When an air raid wakes the forced Jewish travelers, the Nazi commander blames the planes’ presence on the Jews as he claims they signaled to the British planes with candles. The Nazi officials also call him ‘swine,’ confiscate his valuable belongings and take his special status work pass without looking at it.
Gyuri responds to these events with convincing confusion and innocence. He is helpless to the events occurring around him and it seems his fate is out of his control. Gyuri treats the unfolding events almost as an adventure.
‘Fateless’ marks the full-length feature directorial debut of Koltai, whose experience as a cinematographer highlights a distinctive contrast between the grim Holocaust setting and the unexpected hidden beauty which Gyuri finds in the concentration camps.
Throughout the 140-minute movie, Koltai plays with light, giving the film the appearance of a faded, old photograph to offer artistic value to the shots of the concentration camps. This may bother some viewers, who may be unnerved by the injection of visual beauty into a story centered around the Holocaust.
The aesthetic excellence is matched by a Kertesz’ mastery of language, which, judging by the English subtitles translated from Hungarian, is poetic and rings with meaning and conciseness.
Gyuri is hurled into a concentration camp existence without friends or relatives and into a lineup of strangers to face the Nazi officials. Here he meets Bandi Citrom (Aron Dimeny), a friendly man who becomes a father-figure to Gyuri, guiding him through the basic procedures at the concentration camp. Gyuri learns to state his new identity quickly in German, ‘64921,’ and to hold out his bowl quickly when being served a meal or risk not eating at all.
The adventure which began as a train trip to a mysterious place evolves into a game of survival, in which everyone’s health is tested. The time immediately before the evening rations becomes Gyuri’s favorite period of the day as he anticipates the meager rations which give a measure of satisfaction to those clinging to life.
After weeks of hard labor and malnutrition, Gyuri, once a healthy, fair-skinned boy, is now a skeletal, scarred and swollen-legged captive who has trouble standing.
In order to best portray the physical changes Gyuri endured in addition to the mental changes, Nagy willingly went on a ‘starvation diet’ so his physical transformation will match that of his mental state.
The barbaric acts Gyuri witnesses also includes Jews taking advantage of fellow Jews, offering stolen rations in exchange for more valuable food.
Still, moments of compassion overwhelm the individual struggles for survival at the concentration camp.
When a weak Gyuri collapses in a lineup and does not get back up due to a lack of strength, those around him swiftly carry him inside and out of the Nazis’ unfeeling repression.
When Gyuri is trembling in the cold and losing his will to continue, Citrom drapes his own threadbare black and white striped jacket on Gyuri and offers his omniscient support and kindness.
When the boy with whom Gyuri shares bed sheets dies, Gyuri is thankful for the man giving the morning’s rations, who generously places food in the bowls for both Gyuri and the boy, knowing the young boy is deceased and that Gyuri will eat both bowls.
After the war ends, an American soldier (Daniel Craig) offers Gyuri a chance to study in America and leave Europe. Gyuri opts instead to go back to Budapest. This moment in the film marks the first time Gyuri sheds the passivity which has governed his life, finally making a decision on his own instead of letting fate lead where it may. Thus, Gyuri finally becomes fateless. After Gyuri finds his way back to his home, realizing he misses certain elements of the concentration camp life and preferring it to what has become of Budapest. Although the reasons behind this revelation may confuse all but the deepest thinking viewers, further thought about the movie or a second viewing provide additional understanding.
Gyuri begins to understand that what happened to him and to all Jews was not controlled solely by fate and that each individual can play a role in one’s existence as well.
Gyuri’s final comments, heard as he walks down a street leading out of Budapest, reinforce the strength of this film (especially in the latter half) in juxtaposing the inherent beauty of the human soul against the extensive cruelty epitomized by the Holocaust concentration camp.