The poster for Fateless (Sorstalanság) says it “dares to aestheticize the concentration camp experience.” It’s true that the movie eschews the vigorous tragic accents of Sophie’s Choice, Diary of Anne Frank, or Schindler’s List, with their violin-heavy musical scores and outpourings of grief. Fateless instead unfolds with a quiet deliberation, an often disconcerting objectivity, and benefits greatly for it.
The film opens in occupied Budapest, late in the war, with 14-year-old Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy) walking briskly through an open courtyard, fussing at his lapel to make sure the yellow star on his coat is visible. We recoil from the injustice of this stigmatization, of course, but also note his instinctive compliance with it. As he returns home — a pair of well-kept apartments where he lives with his father, stepmother, and extended family — we learn that Köves the elder is to be sent to a labor camp and the family is busily preparing for his coming absence. Though the German occupation of Hungary is perceived as criminal and “mad,” it is also as a quotidian reality, a bureaucratic hassle.
The first two reels also describe Gyuri’s coming of age, as he goes to his first job as a bricklayer, is lectured on letting go the “carefree days of his childhood,” and innocently courts teenage neighbor Annamaria (Sára Herrer). (In this there are some shades of convention, namely the tragic romance of The Diary of Anne Frank.) It falls to Annamaria to play the movie’s first notes of desperation, as she breaks down in a crying fit during a tea party. She doesn’t know what it means to be Jewish. “All I know,” she says, “is it’s a difference separating us from other people.” She doesn’t even know any more whether the grueling and humiliating regulations of the Nazis are unjust, or whether she has something to feel guilty about. It’s reminiscent of the movie’s first shot, where the irresistibility of the Law collides with its absurdity.
Faced with such hostile authority, the Köves spend much time pondering their future as well as that of the Jewish people more generally — one of the elders ascribes the current hardship of European Jewry to the culmination of two millennia of persecution. This chapter comes to a close with a seemingly extraneous shot of a dull-faced Gyuri taking a long bath; he blows absently on a sail toy and it floats away from him. When he blows some more, his breath doesn’t reach the toy any more, offering a rather obvious metaphor for the drifting of things away from your influence.
Gyuri subsequently finds himself a prisoner of the Nazis through an unremarkable chain of events. Again, the movie bucks convention. There are no SS death squads breaking into apartments in the dead of night; instead, as Gyuri rides a bus to work, a policeman pulls him off and holds him with a group of other Jewish children in a farmhouse while he phones in for orders. This leads to a series of petty bureaucratic intrigues and prisoner transfers that land Gyuri first in Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally Zeitz, a smaller camp. As he waits in a courtyard with dozens of other prisoners for the train that will take him to Auschwitz, there’s an air raid. He watches the night sky crisscrossed with searchlights and peppered with Allied bombers, a sign of the end of his childhood: “The simple secret of my life,” he ruminates in voiceover, is that “I could be killed any time, anywhere.”
The realization itself is less remarkable than the apparent indifference with which it’s voiced. The movie’s moment of greatest horror follows shortly thereafter, as Gyuri sits with a friend from the brickworks, out behind the Buchenwald barracks at night. Clouds of gray smoke geyser from the nearby crematorium chimneys, creating a haze that diffuses the light from the post lamps — an image of improbable, inappropriate beauty. But the meaning of the smoke is not lost on the two boys, who have heard talk of the gas chambers and ovens before arriving here. Gyuri observes, almost matter-of-factly, “We’re all going to die.”
The series of transfers at last leaves Gyuri among a sea of strangers, his friends having drifted out of his living sphere. (“We’re all scattered,” laments a fellow inmate in the barracks in the dark of night.) He seems now to be in a kind of afterlife, as he muddles through a purposeless and deprived existence. The lack of structure in the camps makes them seem outside time, and as Gyuri suffers and starves, his sensorium takes on more and more of a hallucinatory air. At last, emaciated and corpselike, he’s loaded onto a wooden cart and carted through the camp — evidently to the showers and his death — and gazes vacantly around him. Shots from Gyuri’s perspective show piles of emaciated bodies, the dead and dying presided over by uniformed Germans, images ungrounded and otherworldly. Or underworldly, to be more precise, the prisoners resembling the wasted souls of the damned and the Nazis standing over them like devils.
When at last the allies liberate his camp, Gyuri makes his way back to now-communist-occupied Budapest. On a streetcar — still wearing his black-and-white-striped inmate uniform, as he now owns nothing in the world — Gyuri allows a stranger to pay his fare, and the stranger is soon asking after his experience in the camps. Were you starved and beaten, he asks. “Naturally,” replies Gyuri. It’s a word he uses more than once, prompting the stranger to ask, “Why do you keep saying ‘naturally’ when it’s not natural at all?” “In the concentration camp, it was natural,” Gyuri explains. The Köves family elders tell him they’ve heard that the camps were like the lowest circle of Hell. “Hell doesn’t exist,” Gyuri replies, “but the camps do.”
Fateless seems aimed at confronting the twin conventional wisdoms about the Holocaust. The first holds that the Holocaust was a horror without equal in history, and the second is that it must be remembered lest we repeat it. But to envelop it in superlative, as the first corollary would have us do, makes its recurrence more likely. This is because, as Fateless reminds us, such horrors unfold gradually, experienced in detail by their victims, who are unlikely to name what they’ve been through “Holocaust,” to attach to their testimony the grand trappings of religion and myth.