Giving Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertéstz’s novel of the same name an elementary parallelism and playing a 14-year-old boy’s experience on the concentration camp circuit as a day-in-the-life reverie, director Lajos Koltai condemns German and Jewish indifference to the horrors of the Holocaust using an intriguing narrative structure, as subversive as it is initially offensive. The whole thing suggests an act of negation, but not in the spirit of Ernst Zündel and Hutton Gibson. When a starved Gyuri (Marcell Nagy) apes the chewing and swallowing of a Nazi pig who stuffs his face with noodle soup and bread, his fantasy constitutes a heartbreaking act of self-preservation. Other scenes evoke similar acts of faith, most significant Gyuri’s unnerving trip to work, which begins with groups of cheery boys pulled off buses by an excitable police officer and sent unknowingly to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The trip to the camps—snowflakes trickling in through train car windows and wafting over the heads of clueless Jews, all set to a wavering Ennio Morricone composition—is someone’s twisted idea of a WWII-themed snow globe. Koltai clearly exploits the audience’s knowledge of what the story’s Jews don’t seem to realize or, more likely, refuse to accept, but however miscalculated the aesthetic may appear, it summons a fitting mood of ambiguity, unease, and distortion. The actual camp scenes aren’t quite as easily justified. The focus here isn’t on death but survival—picking up fellow prisoners from the ground lest they be shot; trading food for food; keeping clean and lice-free—and political hostilities within the prisoner ranks. The Nazis are almost insignificant to the Gyuri’s plight and his resignation before the altar of what he comes to believe is his hopeless Jewish fate. None of it is uninteresting, except Fateless suggests a new kind of emotionless Holocaust drama—a cannibalistic one. The film swallows whole patches of style from Schindler’s List, The Grey Zone, The Pianist, even Night and Fog, and regurgitates an abstraction, at once unique but awfully familiar. Gyuri’s powerful experience at Buchenwald seems rooted in part in his imagination, but the film’s slick surface doesn’t feel particularly expressive of a unique paranoia so much as it conveys a vision of an uncertain boy (and director) who’ve seen too many Holocaust melodramas.
The image is striking but the cinematography has a sunburnt, Jeunet-like quality I don't remember catching on the big screen. Colors feel stripped of their original vibrancy, but judged on its own terms, the presentation is still very impressive-clean of dirt and grime, with pleasant grain levels and very minimal edge enhancement. There's a slight but noticeable hiss on the soundtrack behind the dialogue, but the 5.1 track is still very lush and boasts some really expansive surround work.
A practical making-of documentary that mixes behind-the-scenes footage with historical information and interviews with the cast and crew, an interview with author and screenwriter Imre Kertész, and trailers of Fateless, The Protocols of Zion, and The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
Unconventional Holocaust film sees its image possibly stripped of its lucidity for video, but it's an appealing presentation nonetheless.