Peter Stein, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, introduced an advance Embarcadero Cinema screening of Lajos Koltai's Fateless, applauding its unique perspective on the holocaust experience. Although many films have been made regarding this tragic phase of human history, no other has committed itself so thoroughly to the vantage point of adolescence.
In a collection of his autobiographical writings, Hermit in Paris, Italian author Italo Calvino cautions when writing about his own childhood under fascism: "The danger for those writing autobiographical memoirs in a political key is that excessive weight is given to politics compared to the weight it really has in childhood and adolescence…. One's perspectives in childhood and adolescence are different; disparate impressions and judgments are placed alongside each other without any logic; even for those who grow up in an environment which is open to opinion and information a line of judgment is formed only with the passage of time." (2003:130-131.)
Director Koltai strives for and achieves a depiction of an adolescent sensibility before this "line of judgment" has been drawn by presenting a plethora of images, vignettes if you will, that are often so brief you are allowed entrance into the interior beauty of the scene before becoming distracted by its horrific environment or its historical context. Just as Calvino prescribes: Koltai places disparate impressions and judgments alongside each other without any clearly-delineated logic connecting them. The quality of this montage—this placing alongside—is the weave and texture of Fateless. Continuing with his description of his experience as a child under fascism, Calvino writes: "The ideas regarding the political struggle already taking place in the world did not reach me, only its external images, which simply lay beside one another as in a mosaic." (2003:135.) And later: "[T]he world seemed to me to have a range of different gradations of morality and behavior, not opposites but placed alongside each other." (2003:136.)
Doe-eyed Marcell Nagy as 14-year-old Gyorgy Koves (nicknamed Gyuri) watches the world unfold before him, no less powerful or cruel for not being understood. He watches a world in crisis veined with sensual and comic reprieve that allows him to call certain moments beautiful even in the face of death, hatred, genocide! The ambiguity of this is fascinating. Gyuri befriends a fellow prisoner who teaches him self-esteem and the impulse to survive by reserving a ball of bread in his pocket. After work and before bedtime roll call Gyuri lives his few free hours fully, finds laughter to mollify pain, finds pleasure in an unexpected piece of meat or carrot in his soup. That this can be sifted from such misery is his remarkable resiliency. Or as A.O. Scott states it for The New York Times: "The ability to wring such satisfactions from nearly absolute deprivation is one of the ways the prisoners hold on to their humanity."
To match the unfolding of this boy's life, that is to say the laying down of the images of his life alongside each other, cinematographer Gyula Pados exquisitely captures the unique light of interior, life-affirming moments through a somber palette that still harbors a hint of pigment, grey only on the surface, pulsing faintly underneath with color. It is the beauty of survival through innocent moments that moves this story right to the brink of death where, as with the rest of life, one fateless fortuitous moment determines everything and draws a clear line.
The film's sequential montage of brief images guarantees that you do not overly invest emotions into the images, they do not get too "hot" (as Carlos Reygadas would say), they are beautiful and evocative in and of themselves. At first this troubled me. Precisely because the movie seemed so cool and detached. I felt that I should be more emotional about what I was seeing but remained dry-eyed and rapt, witnessing. I didn't even realize that I was identifying with the protagonist, as writer Imre Kertesz intended, witnessing, not yet judging, not yet knowing what to feel, what to think. Forming emotions only as certain experiences lay alongside each together.
Fateless is probably too subtle to be satisfying but it certainly intrigues with its philosophical intent and it is, surprisingly, beautiful to look at. My only complaint about the film would be the mistimed casting of Daniel Craig as the American soldier who emancipates Gyuri. Already identified with James Bond, Craig's presence weakens the weave of this film by throwing us out of its time and place.
Lajos Koltai, already a renowned cinematographer (Being Julia; Malèna), has made an impressive directorial debut adapting Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész's semi-autobiographical novel to the screen. In his essay for Landmark Theater's Movienet Koltai asks: "What is the first thing a child sees, having been brought back from death?" and understands that the answer must be formulated by an image:
"Mr. Kertesz's rendering of his childhood experience, on the page and now on screen, is by no means an attempt to aestheticize an unredeemable chapter of history," A.O. Scott writes for The New York Times. "It represents something stranger and, to those of us with only a secondhand or thirdhand knowledge of that history, more disturbing: a survivor's conviction that there were aspects of the experience itself that can only be described as beautiful."