Judge Neal Solon was startled to find beauty in a concentration camp.
You can close your eyes. You can turn away. But you will never forget.
What new can a Holocaust film say?
Facts of the Case
György (Marcell Nagy) is a 14-year old Jewish boy living in Hungary during the Second World War. On the way to his first day of work, after the German takeover of the Hungarian government, he is pulled off of the bus for a "standard ID check." Though he has the right papers, he soon finds himself a prisoner in a German concentration camp. Fateless is the story of György's survival and about how surviving made him different.
As far as films go, Fateless takes a new approach to exploring the Holocaust. The film is not so much about the horrors of the Holocaust but rather about living through them. By surviving life in a concentration camp, György is inherently different—different than he was before the war and different than those he knows who died or who managed to escape internment.
Seeing the world through the eyes of a young boy, Fateless simultaneously takes an intensely personal and a detached approach to the subject of the Nazi concentration camps. The film sometimes feels cold and distant as we watch György survive through the mechanization of his life. We learn, as György does from a fellow Hungarian, that if you want to survive you must maintain the will to live. You must always keep a mouthful of bread in your pocket from the yesterday's ration. You must not be greedy and eat too much. But, as the audience, we also imagine that to survive, you must be numb to the horrors around you. This numbness is reinforced by the detached story telling.
The cinematography in Fateless sometimes seems at odds with the numbness. It is beautiful. This is not surprising—Lajos Koltai, though a first time director, has been a cinematographer for many years. Yet it is surprising to look at a concentration camp and find beauty. But the cinematography is superb and well composed with its intentionally desaturated colors, and a lot of play with light and shadow. The result is an eerie, uncomforable beauty for the beauty. This, too, has its basis in György's experience.
Despite his internment, György sees beauty in the camps around him. He sees the community of people who come together to help each other survive. He sees the fellow Hungarian who seems to make it a personal mission to ensure that György survives. His favorite time of day is dinnertime, not because of food, but because of the freedom to walk around the camp. György sees the minutia and routine of every day life, and to him, it is not all bad.
Some of the film's most powerful moments stem from this understanding of the Holocaust. Eventually György's camp is liberated, and he makes his way back home. Everyone that he knew before the war that survived did so by avoiding internment. Naturally, they all ask about the horrors of the camp. When György decides to give them an actual response, however, no one wants to listen. They all mumble platitudes like "Well, at least it's over now; it's behind us," and they send György on his way. But they didn't experience it, nor is it truly over for György. It is clear that no one around György will ever relate to the singular experience of living in a concentration camp. He is alone, more alone than he was while interned. György is surrounded by people who have a monolithic, mythologized understanding the concentration camp, where he has memories of the experience.
The film is not without it's faults, but they are minor. Much of what we see of György in the concentration camps comes in the form of one to two-minute visual vignettes. At times, this threatens to become plodding, but just as this happens, Koltai shows us a longer interlude with more human interaction. Even this serves to reinforce some of the emotions of the film. It at once makes us see György's life in the details that his family and friends outside the camp will never know nor understand and makes us painfully aware that even with these details and his story, we will never fully understand György's life. Nor will anyone.
As mentioned before, the film looks beautiful. It is presented in its original aspect ratio, and the only downside to the transfer is that it is non-anamorphic. The audio, too, is solid. The Dolby Digital surround track makes good use of the rear speakers, something that is a bit uncommon for a dramatic piece such as this. Rounding out the presentation are two extras, a making of piece clocking in at 23 minutes and a 27-minute interview with author Imre Kertész. Though there is a bit of overlap, both pieces are worth checking out.
Ultimately, two of the things that Fateless emphasizes on screen are human choice and human passivity. We see György and his family send his father off to forced labor, when we as an audience know what will become of him. Twice, we clearly see György ignore people in positions of power—the gendarme who captures him and the G.I. who liberates him—when they tell him either subtlety or directly not to keep following, but to run the other way. We see György's uncles arguing over whether he should ride the bus or take the train to work on the day that he is ultimately detained and first sent to the camps, when he is pulled off of the bus. On that bus, György passively complies by responding to the call for all Jews to de-board. When György finally makes it home from the camp, he's no longer convinced of his family's assertions that this was just the fate of the Jews. He wonders what role his own passivity played in his fate.
All I have to say is this: see this film.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Making of Fateless"
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