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.