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Movie Review: Fateless

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Fateless represents the Holocaust in a way that I’ve never seen before, a way that I found devastatingly effective. I can group the filmic approaches towards the Holocaust that I’d known previously into three categories that I’ll name the documentary approach, the crossroads approach, and the dramatic approach.

In the first group are films like Night and Fog that ask and then try to answer questions about the Holocaust. How did this happen? What happened? In the second group are films like The Big Red One that aren’t properly about the Holocaust, but do engage it from some limited perspective. Finally, in the third group are films like Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, and The Pianist. These are fictional films that employ conventional narrative devices to tell a story told against the backdrop of the Holocaust.

All of these films assume an outsider’s perspective. In the first group the filmmaker takes the role of an investigator of the phenomenon, so he or she cannot simultaneously presume to experience it directly. Night and Fog resonates emotionally, but it is with our (I’m using “our” in a broad sense, as those of us who were not interned in a concentration camp) emotions – our confusion, our sadness, our fear that it could happen again.

The second group encounters the Holocaust at a “crossroads”, if you will, when it crosses paths with their own narratives, again necessarily assuming an outsider’s perspective.

The third group appears to be different: the Holocaust is their subject and their characters experience it personally. But consider each of these three films that I’ve mentioned. In each a protagonist somehow avoids the camps: Oscar Schindler (Schindler’s List) is not part of a targeted population, Giosué (Life is Beautiful) is shielded from the reality of the camps by his father, and Wladyslaw Szpilman (The Pianist) remains in hiding for the duration of the war. These films dare to dramatize the Holocaust, but they still refrain from identifying the audience with one of its victims.

Fateless is different. In the beginning it resembles a coming-of-age story: Gyuri navigates a budding attraction to his neighbor Annámaria (Sára Herrer), he start his first job, he is told that because he is now grown up he is “part of the common Jewish fate.” But this dream of youth quickly turns into a nightmare. One day on his way to work Gyuri is rounded up with a large group of Budapest Jews and shipped off to a labor camp. They pass through Auschwitz along the way where the young, old, sick, and troublesome (an engineer who speaks “perfect German” and offers his services to the German war effort) are culled from their number.

Gyuri experiences firsthand the horrors of the camps: starvation rations, the knowledge that he “could be killed at any moment”, back-breaking labor. He is singled out and derided as “not a real Jew” by some of the more orthodox prisoners, he hides the death of a bunkmate so that he can take his rations, and finally he falls victim to a horrific-looking knee infection. Removed from the rest of the internees, he is placed with the rest of the sick in a shower facility. There is a close-up of a shower nozzle.

It’s an awful moment, one that typifies the essential difference between Fateless and other films about the Holocaust. Each scene ends with a fade to black, each scene is centered around a single moment of emotional resonance — the film mimics Gyuri’s memory. He is the only protagonist, so we have no one else with whom to identify. Moments like these are effective because for the first time a movie has placed itself, and thus its audience, in the position of a victim of the holocaust.

In his review of the film, A.O. Scott points to a problem with movies about the Holocaust: “To the modern viewer, watching movies about the Holocaust carries an inevitable element of solipsism: what would I have done? How would I have behaved?” This problem is aggravated by the presence of a character who remains outside the camps, who remains free to make decisions. Fateless essentially cuts off this solipsistic avenue of escape.

At PopMatters Mike Ward notes that the film’s poster proclaims that it “dares to aestheticize the concentration camp experience.” This is audacious, and cinematographer Gyula Pados (Kontroll) accomplishes this goal. There are scenes of haunting, disturbing beauty: the camp’s prisoners stand in formation in the rain, mist hovers over the ground illuminated by ghostly floodlights. Music wells up as one old man fights to remain standing, so weak that the meager weight of the canteen that hangs round his neck doubles him over. And yet he remains standing because he knows that falling means death.

The color gradually, imperceptibly bleeds away until all that’s left are tones of blue, black, gray, and white. The bodies of the internees gradually assume the unearthly, pale hues of corpses, a likeness reinforced by the maggots that devour the dead flesh of Gyuri’s infected knee. First-time director Lajos Koltai is himself a very highly regarded cinematographer and it is obvious that he has taken great pains with the visual component of this film.

Even more audacious, though, is the universality of Gyuri’s experience. There is no Nazi iconography in Fateless — in fact, there are precious few Nazis. The most villainous characters are internees themselves who become ever more cruel, ever more dulled and insensitive. Gyuri finds some semblance of happiness, even in the hell of the camps. He talks about his favorite hour, just after dinner, “which he waited for and loved most in the camps.” In fact, he denies the “hell” of the camps: “I can’t imagine hell, the camps existed.”

Fateless raises more questions that are not specific to the Holocaust than questions that are: questions about heaven and hell, about happiness, about human nature, about mankind’s capacity to endure, about identity (the title, “Fateless”, interacts in productive ways with the earlier quote about the “common Jewish fate”).

There are extraordinary moments in Fateless, which say more in a few seconds than most full-length films. As the train arrives at Auschwitz a woman puts on lipstick. On their way back to Hungary a group of survivors arrives in Dresden, which is simply gone (devastation on par with pictures that I’ve seen of Hiroshima). One of the survivors says, “Are you sorry for them? They got what they deserved.” The policeman who has apprehended Gyuri motions slightly with his head for Gyuri to run away from the group of prisoners while they are stopped at a busy intersection, but Gyuri stays. These scenes are among the most saturated with meaning that I have ever seen.

Marcell Nagy, in his first film, is stunningly effective as Gyuri. For the most part he is reserved, affectless. This was problematic for Jean Oppenheimer: “Unfortunately, Gyuri’s passivity works against the film. Unable to understand what lies behind his strange composure, the viewer is kept at an emotional distance [...] But viewers still need a window into a character’s soul if they are to connect on a deep emotional level. And that is missing here.”

I disagree completely. I’m wary of that “deep emotional level,” which I think is common to the other Holocaust films I discussed at the beginning of this review. It is because he reacts so little that we cannot fall into Scott’s trap of solipsism — we cannot merely accept or reject his decisions, his reactions for ourselves.

A question often raised in conjunction with films about the Holocaust is, “how can we prevent this from happening again?” Since the release of Schindler’s List hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) have been “ethnically cleansed” in Rwanda and in Darfur. I’ve seen two films about Rwanda: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire (first group) and Hotel Rwanda (third group). Why are filmmakers copying these forms if they aren’t working to stop atrocities like this from occurring?

There is clearly a need to more fully explore the events of 60 years past, and I hope that if nothing else, people will be receptive to Fateless‘ attempts to reconceptialize the Holocaust. Meanwhile, what do we do with a film that is simultaneously so beautiful and so horrifying? So familiar and so shocking? We think about it. We work our way through it. And hopefully we learn something.

About A. Horbal