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An ability to transcend life's horrors

In the Holocaust drama 'Fateless,' Hungarian filmmaker Lajos Koltai finds unexpected peace.

January 27, 2006|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The concept of the sublime runs discreetly through Hungarian filmmaker Lajos Koltai's transcendent World War II drama "Fateless." It is not the simple notion of elevated beauty but rather the idea that a form of pleasure can be derived in even the most horrific of circumstances. Philosophers have debated the sublime for centuries, but rarely has it been depicted so eloquently or unusually on film.

A first-rate contribution to the Holocaust canon, the film is based on Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz's adaptation of his 1975 debut novel, "Sorstalansag," about a Jewish teenage boy's journey from the comfort of his existence in Budapest through the horrors of the concentration camps. Koltai, an Academy Award-nominated cinematographer for "Malena" and longtime collaborator of Istvan Szabo, makes his feature directing debut, demonstrating a dramatically cinematic talent for conveying the subtleties of Kertesz's ideas.

The full extent of the war is late arriving in Hungary with the German occupation beginning in March 1944. Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy) is 14 1/2 years old when his father, a factory owner, is sent away to do manual labor and asks Gyuri to promise to stay with his stepmother. Gyuri, however, is more interested in the things that occupy the mind of a typical adolescent, such as the pretty neighbor girl who worries about what it means to be a Jew.

On the first day he is to begin working at an oil refinery, Gyuri is pulled off a public bus with a group of boys by a local policeman. Initially, it seems like a game to them -- the horrors taking place elsewhere have not yet reached Hungary -- and there appears little to worry about until the boys join an increasingly large group of adults and children being led to a temporary holding area in some stables.

The gravity of the situation dawns on Gyuri long before it comes to most of the adults. His philosophical release is in the realization of what he calls a simple secret of the universe: "I could be killed anywhere, any time." From that point on, Nagy's dark, probing eyes, once full of the inquisitiveness of youth, are masked by a more placid demeanor. The eyes are still piercing, but they display little fear.

The detainees are herded onto rail cars bound for a place unfamiliar to them: Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gyuri is separated from the other boys once their heads are shaved and they are put in the familiar striped prison uniforms and shipped to other camps. A few of his acquaintances reappear throughout the film. Most do not.

Koltai creates a grand tableaux of humanity as the Jewish prisoners are forced through an inhuman structure of slave labor and extermination. The mechanism of destiny is entirely random. To the left someone lives, to the right someone dies. Like a tiny ship in a churning sea, Gyuri is buffeted by the other prisoners as they pass through Buchenwald on the way to a tiny labor camp at Zeitz. They are lucky.

In the camp, Gyuri is befriended by a young man from Budapest named Bandi Citrom (Aron Dimeny). A few years older, he becomes Gyuri's protector and tries to teach him survival skills and fierce optimism. "I will walk down Nefelejcs Street again," Bandi says through gritted teeth. But Gyuri faces the backbreaking labor and beatings with a patience and resignation that the others don't understand. He has become a master of his own existence.

Working with cinematographer Gyula Pados, Koltai gradually drains the warm earth tones of the early scenes until we're left with the cold, stony grays of the camps. Zeitz, suffused in rain and mud, takes on an eerie beauty, ironically suggesting a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Each scene closes with a slow fade to black that feels like a premonition of sleep -- or death.

Every year seems to brings its share of Holocaust films, but "Fateless" is not simply another version of the same story. The horrors associated with the subject are present, but Koltai and Kertesz manage to look beyond the helplessness associated with one's loss of agency and explore the possibility of a philosophical ideal. Gyuri's acceptance that he is being consumed by something greater than himself empowers him, giving rise, by movie's end, to an unimaginable peace.



MPAA rating: Unrated.

A THINKFilm release. Director Lajos Koltai. Producer Andras Hamori. Executive producers Laszlo Vincze, Bernd Helthaler, Robert Buckler. Screenplay by Imre Kertesz, based on his novel "Sorstalansag." Director of photography Gyula Pados. Editor Hajnal Sello. Costume designer Gyorgi Szakacs. Music Ennio Morricone. Production designer Tibor Lazar. In Hungarian and German with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes.

At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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