Lowdown: A Jewish teenager from Budapest comes of age big time at a concentration camp.
Fateless was a rather unique experience for me: a Hungarian film is not a common occurrence these days; it’s pretty hard to bump into non English speaking films in Australia. In other ways it is common, in the sense that it tells the story of a person experiencing the Holocaust in the flesh. The premises and the story telling are not too different to The Pianist’s.
In this 2005 release we follow a Jewish teenager from Budapest, György. His story starts when the end of World War 2 is already in sight but the Nazis are yet to give up on their anti-Semitic agenda. The Jews of Budapest wear yellow stars and hatred from the rest of the population pours at them. Jews are still able to live a life resembling normal at first but that normality is quickly eroding: first György’s father has to hand his factory over to non Jewish hands (albeit caring ones); then the father is called to a work camp. By that time everyone knows what the Nazi definition of a work camp is.
Yet György’s life still goes on for a bit. That is, until he’s taken off a bus on his way to work, together with a bunch of his friends, and is forced on a long journey that eventually places him at a concentration camp. There our boy encounters unimaginable challenges that shape him up for better and worse.
First and foremost, Fateless is a human story. It boasts to be a true story, too, and if you would like to take it beyond the personal than this is the story of the classic Jewish psych, something along the lines of: as long as we’re here there will be those who will get a kick of tormenting us, so we might as well learn to live with it. Obviously my way of spelling this state of mind out is far from accurate but it is still this very state of mind - the world is doing its best to kill us - that leads Israel to be the country it is, a country always suspicious of the world it deems to seek its harm. The contradiction between Israel’s psych and the way it deals its own blows on its neighbors is not obvious to most Israelis.
Back to Fateless, the way the story is told is through a collection of powerful scenes. On the plus side some of these scenes really get to you, yet on the negative side the result feels disjointed: it does not feel like we’re watching the boy’s story but rather as if we’re catching some key glimpses of his life. There is a flow problem here.
Still, some of the scenes are incredibly touching. The policeman arresting the kids and gathering them towards the train that would take them to selection at Auschwitz: the almost unnoticeable look he gives György as he hints getting away might be a better option than sticking with his friends. The selection process itself, with people all around knowing what is taking place yet find themselves in a totally helpless position. The expression of peculiar curiosity displayed by the prisoners when one of them finds a genuine piece of meat in his soup. György coming back home to find a Budapest hostile to its former residents; indeed, I doubt Hungary remembers how a significant proportion of its population went up and disappeared.
All of the above are genuine gems, but they are also indicators to the film's style. As far as explicit scenes are concerned, Fateless is no Pianist; we see suffering but we do not witness explicit cruelty, just the banality of the evil. The scene where we fear the horror the most, when the camera goes inside the showers, turns out to be a replica of the scene from Schindler’s List.
Overall: A powerful experience but not the greatest film ever. 3 out of 5 stars.