Lajos Koltai’s harrowing film Fateless (Sorstalanság) is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same title by the Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertész, who also wrote the screenplay. It is set in 1944, as Hitler’s Final Solution becomes policy throughout Europe.
The film follows the fate of 14 year-old György Köves from Budapest, who finds himself swept up by cataclysmic events beyond his comprehension; experiencing first Auschwitz, followed by Buchenwald and Zeitz concentration camps before returning to a very different home from the one he left behind.
Fateless cleverly explores the contrasts of the unity and brotherhood that developed between inmates of the camps with the sense of alienation that many experienced upon returning home when the war was over.
The film features many poignant scenes that, for me, sets it apart from other Holocaust films. One hypnotic example is a grueling roll call that has the prisoners stood outside for hours on end.
Lajos Koltai: “Kertesz has a phrase in the book about them standing there ‘like wind blowing through a forest’. I wanted these scenes because the difficult thing in the camp was not being beaten up or physically tortured, but the time spent in this place.
I had to realise this by using effects of music [by Ennio Morricone] and movement. I met a Hungarian dancer who specialises in showing the movements of the suffering or dying and I prepared a kind of realistic choreography with him. Morricone composed an ‘anthem of solitude’ for the sequence.”
Inevitably perhaps, the film has been compared to Schindler’s List, but in its favour, it lacks the melodrama. It also lacks the sentimental Hollywood schmaltz of Life is Beautiful. Indeed, it is its un-sentimentality that sets it apart, and for me, makes the film so powerful.
The other strength of the film is that as the viewer is drawn into the narrative, Koltai manages to turn the traditional Holocaust movie ethos on its head by asking not how we react to scenes of such horror, but instead, what it must be like to get so accustomed to such an environment that it becomes what its participants would regard as ‘ordinary’.
The acting throughout is excellent, notably that of Marcell Nagy who plays the lead role of György, who, despite maintaining the stoic belief that ‘there’s nothing too unimaginable to endure’, seems to physically waste away as the film progresses.
The cinematography is also faultless, and Ennio Morricone’s score adds another dimension to an already amazing film. But don’t take my word for it:
“exquisitely modulated and superbly mounted,”- Variety
“an extremely powerful piece of work.” – The Guardian
“I can honestly say it’s one of the most powerful and thought-provoking features I’ve seen this year.” – Time Out
“Lajos Koltai’s film ranks among the best nondocumentary cinematic treatments of the Holocaust yet produced.” – New York Times
“I was completely overwhelmed.”- Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertész