Artists used to feel obligated to approach the Holocaust in the manner of Elie Weisel's Night and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, charting the mechanics of genocide from inside and out. But enough time has passed that artists can now use the Holocaust as a narrative device, a metaphor, or even a genre to deconstruct. Lajos Koltai's adaptation of Imre Kertész's autobiographical novel Fateless does a little of each. Marcell Nagy plays a 14-year-old Hungarian Jew who shows up in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets sent to a concentration camp. As he transfers from worksite to worksite, Nagy wonders if God is punishing him for some specific sin, or if this is all just some tragic misunderstanding. Or if, maybe, he was destined to end up at the camps no matter what.
To a large extent, Fateless is a coming-of-age story in a brutal milieu. In the camps, Nagy hangs around with other kids his age, sneaking cigarettes and shooting the breeze, and the indifference with which he treats his situation is only natural coming from a kid who's spent his whole life being told what to do. But Nagy never really grows up in any conventional sense. Fateless' two key scenes come late, after the war, first when Nagy uses his bad knee as an excuse not to report a fugitive SS officer, and second when he tells a curious man in a train station that he never witnessed the gas chambers firsthand, inadvertently feeding one of the first Holocaust-deniers. If Nagy learns anything from his experience, it's how to be numb and avoid taking action.
Koltai—a veteran cinematographer making his directorial debut—finds a style to fit the affectless tone. Like Roman Polanski's The Pianist, Fateless presumes audiences know the details of how European Jews moved from ghettos to camps to liberation, so Koltai frequently jumps right past the big changes, and dwells instead on the tedious hours inside the train on the way to Auschwitz, and the curious camaraderie of the soup line after a day's labor. Koltai lingers on Nagy's perspective, whether he's watching his family's last meal together through distorted glass, or staring at the sun breaking through the clouds while he lies on a pile of gravel, waiting to die.
Fateless is a strangely beautiful film, enhanced by a typically lyrical Ennio Morricone score and by Koltai's hazy, grayed-out images. The color scheme is as much a part of the story as the story itself, as Koltai explores subtle contrasts between earth tones in a shot of Nagy's dusty, tear-streaked face, or a shot of him crawling through the mud in his faded striped uniform. Whatever the circumstance, Koltai always spots fine distinctions amid the splatter.