Movies you might have missed: “Fateless”

The capitalist industrialists of Nazi Germany were instrumental in the political rise and installation of Adolph Hitler as master of Germany. The Nazi government then unleashed one of the greatest horrors mankind has ever experienced in the racist and politically motivated genocide collectively known as the Holocaust.

A number of remarkable films have documented the agony of this period of mass insanity.  One of the most haunting and perhaps least seen was the 2005 Hungarian release, Fateless.

Even as the war wound down the Nazis nevertheless continued their genocidal drive albeit with less efficiency than when they began. In the case of Hungary they relied mostly on the collaborators of a puppet fascist government, whose roundup of Reich enemies did not quite match the murderous precision that marked the German drive through places such as Poland and the Baltic states.

The film is inspired by the actual experiences of Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertesz who provides the screenplay. Teenage actor Marcell Nagy plays a tender youth named Gyurka, still playful and content despite the hardships of war. His world slowly begins to crumble however, when his father liquidates the family assets and reports for forced labor. Then, on a precarious venture outside his family’s Budapest apartment, Gyurka finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is ensnared in a hasty roundup led by a local police officer. It is from here his perilous journey through the network of Nazi death camps begins.

What makes this film unique, in addition to the sublime cinematography of Gyula Pados, previously on display in 2003’s Kontroll, is the inspired direction of Lajos Koltai who constructs the story in an unusual way. The film flows much like a human memory, in short anecdotal scenes that include learning lessons, frightful terror, and even moments of joy and beauty.

In one unforgettable scene, a group of brothers entertains their fellow prisoners with a rendition of a popular song. Their soft and sweet delivery transports the consciousness of the captives away from their hellish existence for a few fleeting moments. It puts the viewer in mind of similar scenes in such films as Paths of Glory (1957) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Another memorable moment occurs when a fellow prisoner, until this point known for his embarrassing guileless naivete, approaches Gyurka and points to the letter U embroidered on their ragged prison uniforms. He asks the youth if he understands what the U indicates. Of course, the youth replies, it stands for ‘”Hungarian”, the German word for which begins with U. “No”, replies his countryman, it stands for another German word beginning with U, “not guilty.”

The film is not dialogue driven, but more a film of images: the backbreaking labor, the constant indignities, and the endless roll calls. Also well illustrated are mere scraps of conversation: the profane, the philosophical, and the absurd. The mind struggles with questions of “why?” and “how?” when confronted with such impossible cruelty, but Gyurka cannot strain his mind to answer such questions, he simply has to live it. Some prisoners who dedicate every fiber of their being to survive, do not, others, who simply stumble along, live. At one point one of the youths, commenting on their unpreparedness for such a place, remarks to his fellows, “We should have spent all our time studying Auschwitz.”

Upon his liberation Gyurka finds that while the war is over the conflict of mankind against racism continues, and he is warned by an American G.I. that being Jewish is still quite enough to put your life in jeopardy. When he returns to Budapest he finds his extended relatives who managed to escape the terror and were not forced to join the transports. One of them says he imagines the camps must have been “a hell.” The young man corrects him, saying that there is no need to use your imagination because, “hell doesn’t exist, but the camps do.”             

Fateless is not only great art, it is vital testimony that must be absorbed by future generations so that these crimes can never be repeated.

Movie details:

Directed by Lajos Koltai

2005, 140 mins.