3½ stars (out of four)
"Fateless," an epic Hungarian movie about the Holocaust, plunges you into the nightmare experience of the death camps as few works of art or reportage ever have. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel "Sorstalansag" by Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz--a camp survivor who used his own boyhood as the basis for his fictional saga of young Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy)--it's a work that sears the heart and conscience. The events are annihilating, the way they're told both beautiful and terrifying.
Like many Holocaust tales, this one begins with the dramatic erosion of liberty under the Nazis, in this case in 1944 Hungary, and then abruptly draws us into hell. Gyuri, only 14, whose father already has been arrested, is on his way to work when he's pulled off a bus with other Jews by a rural policeman. Without any trial (his "guilt" is established by the yellow Jewish star on his coat), he is sent to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally to the lesser-known slave labor facility Zeitz.
As he goes from camp to camp, we see Gyuri's face and frame growing gaunter, his spirit being sucked from him by the omnipresent brutality and sadism. "Fateless" follows the boy through his horrific camp experiences--the long forced assemblies in the yard, the executions, gassings, the pathetic trade in food and cigarettes, the deaths--and then back to Budapest after the liberation for an ironic, disquieting coda.
The script was written by Kertesz himself, which puts "Fateless" among the very few films with screenplays by Nobel Prize-winning authors. (Kertesz won in 2002; others include William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) But the movie's grueling authenticity and sometimes timeless art come not just from its eloquent writing but its remarkable technical and visual realization.
The director of "Fateless," Lajos Koltai, is a world-famous cinematographer who usually works with the great Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo ("Mephisto," "Sunshine").
This is Koltai's feature directorial debut (at the late age of 59), and he and his cinematographer here, Gyula Pados of the gritty subway fantasy-thriller "Kontroll," have fashioned a striking visual-photographic style for the film. They drain most of the color from the frames when Gyuri enters the camps and show those stories in a series of haunting near-monochrome vignettes, punctuated by numerous slow fades to black. Those effects imbue the film with a shockingly beautiful visual rhetoric that heightens the force of Kertesz's writing.
As Gyuri, young Nagy has thin-faced good looks and a quiet intensity that remind you a bit of Adrien Brody's Wladyslaw Szpilman in "The Pianist." Even more memorable is Aron Dimeny as the resilient Bandi Citrom, an older prisoner with amazing survival instincts, who takes Gyuri under his wing.
"Fateless" was one of the five foreign-language Oscar nominees at this year's Oscars. Had it been directed by Koltai's mentor Szabo (who could have improved the acting in the weaker Budapest sections), it might have won--and it deserved to. The film is on a level just slightly below "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist," and only because Koltai is a less powerful, practiced director than either Steven Spielberg or Roman Polanski. But thanks to Kertesz, "Fateless," the movie as well as the book, is a document that will survive, about an era that should always haunt our memories.
Directed by Lajos Koltai; written by Imre Kertesz, based on his novel "Sorstalansag"; photographed by Gyula Pados; edited by Hajnal Sello; production designed by Tibor Lazar; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Andras Hamori. A THINKFilm release; opens Friday at Landmark's Renaissance theater. Running time: 2:20. No MPAA rating. Adult (for nudity, language and Holocaust violence).
Gyuri Koves - Marcell Nagy
Bandi Citrom - Aron Dimeny
Finn - Andras Kecskes
Unlucky man - Jozsef Gyabronka
Old Kollmann - Endre Harkanyi