Still, you cannot really empathize with the weird apathetic personality of the main character until the last reflections of the movie.
The novel was autobiographical, and the film is even more so. In 1944 young Gyorgy Koves (played by Marcell Nagy), part of a Budapest Jewish family, says goodbye to his father, called up for war labour. (Those who know Budapest will marvel at how well 1940s Budapest is reconstructed for the film.) Koves doesn't suspect that mere weeks later, he and several of his peers, and ultimately an enormous amount of their Jewish neighbours are sent off to Auschwitz. Koves survives the extermination camp, only to pass through Buchenwald and end up labouring in appalling conditions in Zeitz. The bulk of the story is Koves' experiences in the concentration camp, learning from a fellow Hungarian prisoner (Aron Dimeny) the need to keep one's chin up and take pleasure from the most trifling things in order to avoid the most fatal of emotions in the camp: despair. Director Lajos Koltai has long experience has a cinematographer, and here he impressively has concentration camp scenes shot in such a way that all colour is drained, and the entirely convincing set design is present here as well.
While Kertesz' ending is just as shocking as in the book, the general theme of ordinary acceptance of one's circumstances is not as strongly pronounced through most of the film. This is probably due to the lack of first-person narration here, where Koves can speak at length about his feelings. Some of the scenes are stiched together very loosely in the film, so that at one moment the ill Koves suffers in a packed tent and at the next moment he finds himself in a fairly well-equipped officer's hospital with little explanation for the viewer. The liberation of the camp similarly comes suddenly here: after an extremely brief scene of Koves hearing gunfire in the distance at night, we immediately go to a sunny scene where people are walking around freely. New to the film is an exchange between Koves and an American soldier, impressively played by Daniel Craig who for better and worse is now better known as the new James Bond. Other changes from the novel, though not too objectionable, include the addition of a young love for Koves before he is sent off to the camps, and the absence of the social conflicts between Yiddish-speaking ("real") Jews and the more assimilated Jews of Hungary, and between those who just want to get with their lives and those who naively plan of a new, more just Communist Hungary.
Among films on the Holocaust, FATELESS is one of the very best. I'm very much appalled that it received such limited distribution, for as a film in itself, it is certainly a five-star affair. My comments and reservations on it are those of one who is keeping always the original novel in mind. If you don't care too much to read the book, see FATELESS anyway and ignore my points. I only wish that the one theme that made the novel so unique and punch-in-the-gut unexpected were more present here.
"Thus we immediately got a stylization of the Holocaust, a stylization which has by now grown to nearly unbearable dimensions. The word "Holocaust" is already a stylization, an affected abstraction from more brutal-sounding terms like "extermination camp" or "Final Solution." Nor should it come as any surprise, as more and more is said about the Holocaust, that its reality the day to day reality of human extermination increasingly slips away, out of the realm of the imaginable"
Kortesz follows this with a scathing treatment of Spielberg's legendary "Schindler's List". For Kortesz, Spielberg did the greatest disservice to Holocaust survivors by his entire misrepresentation of the events, calling the movie kitsch. For Hungarian Nobel Prize winner, all Schindler's List does is to further dramatize the events, casting them further away from the realm of true human nature and creating a scenario in which somehow, man can go through such an experience and come out safe and sound (as Spielberg shows by bringing color to the film in the last few minutes).
Well, it looks as if the makers of Fateless were listening to him. The film is less about showing the bloody and horrifying events than about the human experience. How such an event can irrevocably alter our persona. There is no overt brutality in the film, no Nazis shooting innocent children left and right. Death, while ever present, is not represented in anyway as vividly as it is in Schindler's List. Yet it is clear that death is all around, and can creep in at any moment. Rather than the grim detail, the movie haunts us with its depiction of the deterioration of man in such an environment. At the same time the film depicts how hard pressed we are in such difficult times to find some sense of happiness and cheer. Gyuri (the narrator and protagonist) finds a sense of peace and kinship when breaking during supper time, a time where he can fraternize with his close friends, or finds cheer in discovering a small piece of meet or potato in his soup. The film, perhaps moreso than any other involving the Holocaust, gives us a personal glimpse into the mind of the inmate (and a real one, as the film is based entirely on the experiences of Kortesz).
As Kortezs mentioned in his article, the Holocaust did not end with the destruction of the extermination camps and the movie traces Gyuri's steps from inmate into victim and the emotions that carry with it. In one scene he is sitting with a number of other survivors in the ruins of what was once the city of Dresden and watches as they laugh at the destruction and misery of the Germans in the city. Gyuri returns to his home in Budapest but feels more alone than ever before. Neither can his old family friends comfort (as much as they lack any understanding over what he went through) nor can he find any solace in being a "survivor", longing to reacquaint himself with happy breaks he once had with his comrades in the camp.
Kortezs here did not write a victims story, as Gyuri rejects this and instead will opt to talk about the happy moments he had in the camp so that he can return to a normal life and future.
The film has much more in common with the themes of Live is Beautiful, which Kortesz has openly lauded in the same article mention above, than with the starkness, cruelness and artistic "realism" of Schindler's List. The theme of innocence and loss of it is very much a theme of both this and La Vita e bella. It is an inspiring move, if still traumatic.