Directed by Lajos Koltai. Hungary/Germany/UK. 2005.

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There seems to be some kind of charity fundraising event going on, whereby people volunteer to give up two-and-a-half hours of their time to sit in the dark, facing a screen onto which The Da Vinci Code is being projected. If someone could tell me more about the charity in question (I heard rumours that it is something called the Dan Brown Benefit Fund) I may consider supporting it.

Meanwhile, my preferred way to spend the two-hours-plus was to see Fateless, a stunning first feature by Lajos Koltai. To say that it is a Hungarian Holocaust movie may not sound enticing to devotees of rom-coms or conspiracy thrillers, but for anyone who liked Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Klimov’s Come and See it is a worthy successor. It is based on an autobiographical novel by Imre Kertesz, a Nobel Prize-winner, about his experiences as a 14-year-old Jewish boy wrenched from his Budapest home in 1944 to do hard labour in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Seen entirely from the perspective of someone too young to understand the full implications of the horrific events taking place, like the two Russian films just mentioned, it is particularly remarkable for its hypnotically beautiful widescreen cinematography by Gyula Pados.

This raises the question of the appropriateness of accompanying a ghastly narrative with visual beauty. Normally this would seem jarring, but because we are seeing the events through the eyes of a boy who, we discover, seems to accept his nightmare as somehow fated because of his religion, as part of the divine order of things, perhaps stark realism is not called for. Maybe it is relevant also to the director’s nationality; it may not be coincidence that the half-dozen other Hungarian films I have seen (by Miklos Jancso, Karoly Makk, and Bela Tarr) are all visually stunning. The somewhat lush musical score by the great Ennio Morricone has been criticised by some as being inappropriate to the subject-matter, but it certainly goes with the cinematography.

The long middle section, set in the concentration camps, are filmed in near-monochrome, book-ended by the scenes in Budapest which are in more “natural” colours. In the early section, the boy seems almost glad to be escaping family problems (including his father being taken to a Nazi labour camp), while after his liberation by the Americans, in which he spurns a G.I.’s suggestion that he makes a new life in the West instead of returning to Budapest, he finds that his former home is now occupied by strangers, his father will never return, his stepmother has remarried, while only his argumentative old uncles are an ever-present reminder of his earlier life.

American reviews of Fateless have been ecstatic, British ones only a little less so. It is certainly a film to see; all it has in common with the aforementioned Da Vinci Code is the 12A certificate.
Alan Pavelin
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