Lifetime Wander

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Review of 'Fateless', director: Lajos Koltai

In the opening shot a young man strolls across a square in Budapest, his yellow-starred coat flapping in the wind. The camera focuses on the star, giving a foreboding sense of the horror to come. From the start we know where we are, we know the story. The grotesque conclusions to the Nazis' eugenics programme are not a new subject for cinema, but this debut is visually stunning and emotionally powerful.

Based on Imre Kertesz's semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless follows 14 year old Gyuri's experiences through the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz.

Gyuri's father has been called up to work in a labour camp. There is time for a farewell meal with friends and family, and for the last awkward words between father and son. No one is really sure why these things are happening. "Jews have always suffered, and so our suffering continues," answers one of the guests. Gyuri is told they share a "common Jewish fate" by the man who leads him in prayers for his father's departure. Gyuri repeats Hebrew words that he clearly doesn't understand. Mid-20th century Hungarian Jews were well assimilated, and Gyuri has as much trouble understanding the "common Jewish fate" as he does the liturgy he is reciting.

After his father has left, Gyuri encounters a group of neighbours his own age frenetically discussing what it means to be Jewish. For him there is no answer. The world is as it is and the hatred towards him is not personal, and he refuses to let it upset him. As Gyuri heads off to work on the local bus, all those with yellow stars are pulled off and start their journey to the camps.

In Fateless plot, dialogue and narration are pared down to a minimum. We view events from the point of view of Gyuri looking back - from his memories. This is achieved to superb effect, snatches of disturbing nightmares that continues to haunt. Life in the camps is shot as short vignettes of misery, often without words but with imagery that sticks in the mind. Veteran score composer Ennio Morricone adds his talent, immersing the viewer in the film.

The exhaustion illustrated by rows of men forced to stand for hours swaying with the pain of trying to remain standing parodies a congregation in prayer. A disorientating effect is achieved from these dislocated scenes as the inmates are shunted from place to place and thrown together with strangers. Occasionally a familiar face will reappear, only to be referred to not by name but a description such as "the smoking boy".

Some of the themes picked are reminiscent of Primo Levi's discussion of what it means to be human in such degradation, about how to survive and hold onto some dignity. With next to nothing, keeping hold of a scrap of bread can be vital to clinging onto humanity.

The disintegration of the men, literally in the case of Gyuri's maggot-infested knee, occurs steadily through the film. The warm tones of Budapest seep away gradually to leave the grey sludge in the shooting in the camps.

Gyuri survives and returns to Budapest. The damaged men shuffling home inspire more horror than comfort from those they encounter. He attempts to wander back into his life, but no one knows how to react to him. Some of the responses that greet him are deeply hostile. Even with their pain and inhumanity, the camps themselves seem easier to comprehend than the world that put him there.