Masterful on every level, Fateless takes one of history's greatest tragedies, the Final Solution, and puts a new spin on it. Told from the point of view of a 15-year old Hungarian boy who is sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the film is a quotidian look at what life was like on the inside. Masterfully directed, acted and shot, this is world cinema at its absolute finest.
Based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész (who wrote the film's screenplay), Fateless sets itself apart from every other Holocaust tale due to its deadpan style. It's almost as if Gyura Köves (Marcell Nagy, a tremendous find), the young Jewish teen who narrates the story, has written a "What I Did This Summer" essay for school. Except in this case, he's writing about surviving Hitler's death machine.
Fateless opens in 1944 as Gyura, wide-eyed and innocent, watches while his father is stripped of his business and sent to a forced-labor camp. Shortly thereafter, the boy himself is taken off a bus by a rural policeman, eventually put on a boxcar and sent to Auschwitz. From this point on, the highly stylized film jumps from episode to episode, showing exactly what it was like to exist inside the camps. Everything is depicted, from the brutalization of the prisoners by the guards, to arguments over food, fleeting moments of friendship, even times of calm and grace.
This may sound similar to other Holocaust documents, but it's not. Kertész's screenplay is fractured in the extreme, running from scenes that are little more than blackout bits to longer, more explicit sequences. There's an expressionistic tone throughout that creates a sense of hyper-reality, an almost dreamlike version of the death camps.
Adding to all this is director Lajos Koltai's decision to shoot the film in changing sepia tones, each meant to convey a particular mood. Most importantly, Gyura, who nearly dies in the camps, is more an observer than an actor, and the many shots of him gazing into the camera or watching as horrors unfold provide a certain distancing effect which only enhances the picture's clear-eyed view of events.
It's not that Fateless doesn't prove harrowing and ultimately disturbing. If anything, the movie's sober tone makes it as unsettling as any Holocaust film ever made. But Fateless, which benefits immeasurably from Tibor Lázár's large-scale production design, is ultimately, in a strange sort of way, a tale of hope. At the end of the film, after the camps have been liberated and Gyura has returned home to Budapest, he says his experience has taught him that "there's nothing too unimaginable to endure." And looking ahead to the long future he has ahead of him, he adds: "Lying in wait for me like some unavoidable trap is happiness."