DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
FATELESS (Sorstalanság) (director: Lajos Koltai; screenwriter: from the novel "Sorstalansag" by Imre Kertész/Imre Kertész; cinematographer: Gyula Pados; editor: Hajnal Sello; music: Ennio Morricone; cast: Marcell Nagy (Gyuri Koves), Aron Dimeny (Bandi Citrom), Andras M. Kecskes (Finn), Jozsef Gyabronka (Unlucky Man), Endre Harkanyi (Old Kollmann), Daniel Craig (United States Army Sergeant), Janos Ban (Father), Judith Schell (Stepmother); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Andras Hamori; ThinkFilm; 2005-Hungary-in Hungarian and German with English subtitles)

 
"In a long list of Holocaust films, this sublime one is well-worth seeking out."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hungarian filmmaker Lajos Koltai's first film as a director comes after a long and distinguished career as a cinematographer, including 14 films shot for István Szabó. It's a major addition to the Holocaust opus. Surprisingly, despite a plethora of similar Holocaust films, this one seems fresh. The powerful film is based on the 2002 Nobel Laureate winner Imre Kertész's unsentimental 1975 autobiographical novel of an Auschwitz boyhood (whose title translates as Fatelessness). Hungary being an ally of Germany, didn't begin its concentration camp deportations of the largely assimilated Jewish population of some 800,000 until the spring of 1944. 

The sad tale is told through a series of episodes, starting off in autumn in a Budapest that has lost its past gaiety. All the Jews have to wear gold stars on their clothes both indoors and outdoors. The tragedy is seen through the eyes of a good-natured schoolboy who contemplates his inexplicable fate and what it means to be a Jew (which is something that defies being answered in full, even after the Holocaust), as the kid goes from not getting what lies ahead for him to fully getting it as someone who has lost his childhood and must now see things as if he were a grizzled old man. 

Wide-eyed innocent Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy) is a nice 14-year-old Jewish boy living in Hungary with his prosperous factory owner father (Janos Ban) and stepmother (Judith Schell) when the Nazi pogroms begin sweeping through the country. In a state of disbelief, Gyuri's father is sent to a forced labor camp and tells him to look after his stepmother. Gyuri gets his first kiss from a neighbor Jewish girl, and still thinks like a child not realizing the present dangers. But he's forced to quit school and gets a job as a bricklayer; and not long after his father's departure, he gets rounded up in a police raid on a bus and is sent by cattle train to Auschwitz. He saves himself by lying to the guards that he is 16, and thereby avoids the gas chamber reserved for children. His childhood innocence is no longer and a sudden willingness to face death without fear prevails, as he realizes he can be killed at any time. He survives in every camp he's sent to, as he moves to Buchenwald and then to Zeitz. The kid's camp experience becomes a matter of being able to survive such horrors by his lively awareness, inward strength to hold onto his dignity and maintain a cheery demeanor despite the beatings, hard labor and those dying around him. Outwardly he turns into an expressionless zombie who bonds with the kindly older Jewish inmates, one of them, from Budapest, is a few years older, Bandi Citrom (Áron Dimény), and becomes his protector and gives him survival tips to counteract the cruelties of the Nazi guards. Once the SS abandons the camp, the prisoners briefly take charge until the Americans arrive. A hearty optimistic American soldier (Daniel Craig) tells the emaciated Gyuri, someone he feels sorry for and wants to help, to go to Sweden or Switzerland and not to return to a war-torn Hungary. But Gyuri wants to return home for his father's sake, and once there the survivor finds a different country as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life again. 

In addition to the very moving story (that is as good as any of the Holocaust films in telling of the toll it exacts on the survivors) and the fine acting (the performance by Nagy, in his first film, is simply overwhelming), the film has unforgettable impressionistic color-drained images as Koltai has ace cinematographer Gyula Pados ("Kontroll")  handle the photography chores. It starts out in color and then when its nightmare tale shifts into gear it goes into black and white. Each scene in its slow fade closes in black, indicating sleep or death. There's a striking Ennio Morricone score that reflects the film's changing moods (though it suffers somewhat because it telegraphs how we should feel, which is not really needed). In a long list of Holocaust films, this sublime one is well-worth seeking out.

REVIEWED ON 12/10/2006        GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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