You expect certain conventions with a coming-of-age film. For one, the ecstatic highs and crushing lows that come with adolescence.
But nothing can prepare you for the despair and shocking pleasures experienced by the teenage protagonist of Fateless.
Fourteen-year-old Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy) has his teenage years, full of angst and worry and romantic yearning, further imprinted by a sudden tumult in his Budapest family. His father is taken to a forced labor camp in the last days of the Final Solution as Hungary, a former ally of Germany, is overthrown by the Nazis.
Holocaust films invite all manner of clichés about the resilience of the human spirit and man's inhumanity to man. Any filmmaker who can find a way to upend the conventions and bring new illumination to the subject is to be commended.
In adapting Nobel laureate Imre Kertész's autobiographical novel, Hungarian filmmaker Lajos Koltai miraculously captures Gyuri's utter mystification as he watches the incomprehensible adult drama of the Holocaust unfold.
A tale told in a string of vignettes, the unconventional, even surreal storytelling mimics Gyuri's experience in the camps. Herded first to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, Gyuri is like any passive kid, going along with what he is told, even as he marvels at the strange behavior of the adults who instruct him.
Koltai finds a common currency in the shared existential angst of a teenager trying to figure out the ways of an often corrupt world and the Holocaust as one of the most profoundly surreal and alienating instances of illogic and evil ever lived through.
Gyuri witnesses -- even participates in -- the passive, bureaucracy-smoothed march to the concentration camps, ignoring several opportunities to escape. Koltai captures the hierarchy of the prisoners as they jockey, based on their previous social standing, for a better position in the same sinking lifeboat, and the stupor of disbelief that allowed otherwise rational people to ignore the many warning signs on their slow march to the concentration camps.
In Buchenwald, Gyuri witnesses two dimensions to his fellow inmates. There is a sense of rabid self-preservation from the pious, self-righteous, old-school Yiddish-speaking prisoners who barter piteously for food and show no mercy for Gyuri's fragility. Then there are those like an older man who protects Gyuri and coaches him on maintaining his self-respect, one of several who nurture Gyuri in the absence of his father.
At the end of the war, liberated by an American soldier (in a brief cameo by Daniel Craig), Gyuri is warned about going back to Hungary.
Heedless, Gyuri does what is only natural in revisiting the home he was wrested from, though once there he finds that he has not only been forgotten, his grim experience is in the process of being erased.
Gyuri wanders through the streets of Buchenwald in a vortex of disbelief, astounded by how easily things return to normal. In post-war Hungary, he is greeted by Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, but somehow his youthful hopefulness remains intact.
Koltai's brutal, raw and humanistic work recalls the best days of post-war Eastern European cinema, when a young Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda created films of shocking moral complexity, artfulness and feeling.
True to his cynical, history-stained Eastern European soul, Koltai doesn't shy away from the pernicious anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe that even an injustice as grave as the Holocaust couldn't erase.
His deeply haunting survivor's tale is laced with some of the pessimism, misanthropy and surreal vision of the regional cinema. Fateless is a film sophisticated enough to affirm that any efforts to create black-and-white extremes out of human experience will be defeated by the nuanced, unbelievably complex makeup of the mind. And it is a film brave enough to suggest that even in Buchenwald, a boy could grow and learn and maybe even miss the profundity of the experience there.
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