Fateless directed by Lajos Koltai, written by Imre Kertész from his novel, with Marcell Nagy, Aron Dimény, András M. Kecskés and József Gyabronka. A ThinkFilm release. 140 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (November 3). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Very few cinematographers make a successful transition to directing. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that photographers tend to be irresistibly lured to the beautiful.
In a film set largely in a concentration camp, "exquisitely lit" should not be the first adjectival phrase to spring to mind, but Fateless is exactly that.
Director Lajos Koltai is best known as István Szabó's cinematographer from Confidence through Mephisto, and from Colonel Redl to Being Julia. He also shot two of the greatest Hungarian films, Pál Gábor's Angi Vera and Péter Gothér's Time Stands Still as well as an assortment of international hits, including The Legend Of 1900 and Malèna.
After 35 years of helping other directors fulfill their visions - or spackling the cracks in their films with light - Koltai makes his directorial debut at age 59 with this adaptation of Imre Kertész's Holocaust novel.
The young protagonist, 12-year-old Gyuri, is living in Budapest with his father and has a pass, he thinks, out of the labour camps because he's working in the war industry. Then, one day on his way to work, his bus and all the other buses are stopped and all the Jews are taken off.
The next two hours of the film show the boy in a series of camps. This is familiar material - the gruelling, pointless labour, the arbitrary punishments, the ankle-deep mud that reduce prisoners to the barest sort of human relationships.
It's strange to think we've reached the point where material about one of the most grotesque and savage projects in history can seem familiar. But the Holocaust has been looked at harder and from more points of view than most events of the last century, and the bar is fairly high when it comes to cinematic representation.
There are the great documentaries like Night And Fog and Hotel Terminus; great dramas set in the camps, like Schindler's List, The Pianist and Sophie's Choice; wrenching examinations of the events leading up to the camps, as in the cold recreation of The Wannsee Conference (and its HBO remake, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, a bit of casting that surpasses the surreal); and post-Holocaust studies ranging from Francesco Rosi's The Truce to Otto Preminger's Exodus and Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker.
Long after guilt has been assigned in Music Box and more than one episode of Law And Order, European filmmakers have looked at the phenomenon of Jews hidden by gentiles, as in Agnieszka Holland's Angry Harvest.
I can easily understand the attraction of the Holocaust for artists. Eastern European artists, in particular, did not address national guilt while the Communists were in power, and one of the key points made by Fateless is that Hungarians, not Germans, captured Jews and shipped them to the camps.
But at the same time, it may not be the sort of drama you should take on as a first film.
Roman Polanski, who actually survived the Nazi occupation of Poland, didn't approach the subject until he was almost 70, with half a century of filmmaking behind him. Steven Spielberg didn't feel ready to deal with it until he was almost 50 and had been directing for 20 years.
Koltai has a tremendous eye and is very good with actors, but he can't resist beauty (Spielberg and Polanksi both did), and his decision to film in sepia mixed with occasional colour seems an affectation, as did the red-coated girl amidst the black-and-white of Schindler's List.
Fateless is an honourable effort, but when you're dealing with subjects of this size and gravity, you hope for more than honourable efforts. You want a pitiless gaze into the abyss combined with an appreciation of both the best and worst of which humans are capable. That is, you want those things the greatest artists, literary and cinematic, have given us.
In the film's favour is the astonishing central performance of Marcell Nagy as Gyuri. The actor conveys his character's tough, broken innocence with remarkable empathy and intelligence. According to the press material, the production ran out of money and had to wait several months to refinance, which means the young star actually grew mid-film, so he ages visibly between the film's beginning and end. It's one of the great child performances.