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April 5, 2008
Netflix DVD
Hungary / Germany / UK
Hungarian / English / German / Hebrew
140 Minutes
Lajos Koltai
Music by Ennio Morricone

You Can Close Your Eyes. You Can Turn Away. But You Will Never Forget.

Absolutely remarkable true story about a Hungarian teenager sent from Budapest to a series of concentration camps. The teenager-in-Holocaust story has been told before. The Holocaust story has been told before in both fictional accounts and in the annual documentary Oscar race. But something about FATELESS and the way it tells its story makes it at least as good as any of the most highly regarded films of its kind. I will remember particular scenes for the rest of my life.

Gyorgy is 14 1/2 at the start of the film. His father is leaving in the morning for a work camp. His neighbors and family enjoy a last supper, with the understanding, though never verbalized, that he won't be coming home. One of the major differences in this film than in all the other Holocaust-themed ones is that both we the audience, as well as the characters on screen, already have some prior knowledge about what is going on in these Polish camps. I can't stress how important this fact is. The small Hungarian Jewish community has heard tales of attrocities in the camps and responded with varying degrees of disbelief, rumor spreading, and fear. They know that people leave Budapest never to return. They know that Jewish men are being called to labor. And the infrequent letters which arrive from loved ones are non-specific about the treatment. It remains unsaid mostly at the start of the war.

Gyorgy's father leaves and he continues to work in a brickworks until one day he is taken off a city bus along with several dozen other teenage boys, all of whom are wearing yellow stars. The man who takes them off is a Hungarian city police officer. Several hours and many more men later, the group is put on a train and sent to the first of many work facilities. The men work pretty well together, organizing the box cars that will take them to the camps. They make some choices of their own before the Nazis can decide for them. The boxcars are crowded, but not unbearable. Men looking out the window try to figure out where they are. They go first through Germany and then into Poland.

The film's plot is about survival, friendship, and even joy surrounded by the horror of life in a concentration camp. Yes, we've seen all this before. But not the way FATELESS shows us.

There are long passages which are wordless. There is incredibly emotional music by my favorite film composer which probably could have brought tears to my eyes even if not coupled with the images I was seeing. These wordless passages seem much more realistic. The prisoners don't explain what is going on for two reasons, I think. One, at the camps themselves, no one would say each time, "that guy's headed for the showers" or "we only get one slice of bread". And secondly, and uniquely for this type of film, the audience already knows the story. And this gives the filmmakers great leeway in describing what goes on during the day to day monotony of the camp life. This starts immediately. The teenage boys who have sort of stayed together after being taken off the city bus show up in a scene, which is obviously a few days after we last saw them, with their heads shaved. There is no "head shaving scene" or explanation about Jews having their heads shaved. We already know. This happens dozens of times, and while it doesn't sound like it'd be that important to the success of the film, it can't be over-emphasized. The main characters don't explain that they're incredibly hungry. We watch them as they watch the fat guard eat his chicken, we see prisoners pretend that their dead bedmates are alive so they can have extra rations, we see scenes of piles of bodies lined up by the ovens, we watch as friendships are made in camps, only to have them break as prisoners are moved from camp to camp. There are no sad farewells or happy reunions as prisoners recognize each other. There is no Hungarian posse of prisoners explaining their love of country to prisoners from other places.

We see the kindness of prisoners for each other. There is typically a 20-something "rebel" who helps a kid like our protagonist, and this film has one as well. But he is a harsh friend dispensing advice on food rationing and hygiene, but also slapping Gyorgy's face when he does something that might get all of them killed or cause them to starve to death.

When an old man falls, others rush to help him up. When a younger boy faints, an older man (who happens to be gay, though nothing important is made of this-hurrah) whispers to him heartbreakingly, "just hang on a little longer" while helping him up. Loyalties are formed and broken. People are hustling, helping, hurting, and surviving in the camps.

The photography is amazing, the mud looks like the coldest, wettest mud ever. The sky is grayer than any sky ever, the prisoners' eyes are darker than we've ever seen. And, most strikingly, the camps look colder than you can imagine.

Tiny moments are spectacular in their understatement. A woman says "they said we won't need anything where we're going" while on the train car. A young boy continues to find and smoke cigarette butts. A young woman applies makeup before getting off the train at Auschwitz, her intentions known to us through such a small act. The lineup in front of the Nazi soldier who determines what line the prisoners go into. The helpful man who teaches them how to say their number in German. The long-term prisoner who instructs the boys to say that they're 16 in order to be kept alive to work. The SS officer staring into a boy's eyes as he waits for the next heavy sack of flour to be placed on his hunched shoulders.

I could go on and on with the memories of these snippets of the whole 140 minutes film.

This film is different in other ways as well. Our lead character is not a good Jew. He doesn't know Hebrew--he simply mimics his elders during prayers. He is looked down upon by other prisoners who say he's "not a true Jew". In turn, he looks at the small group of Orthodox Jews who lead Friday prayers in the camps as misguided strangers.

He also describes his surroundings in a matter-of-fact way that isn't so different than what the Nazis would say. "This camp is a smaller, less impressive facility than Buchenwald, with no ovens." And he continually downplays the misery he finds himself surround by.

I need to mention, before ending this rave, that there is a four-minute scene that is etched in my brain. The prisoners are lined up before dawn in their tidy rows. No words, just a grid of men in stripes. The sun comes up, they remain in their rows. It begins to rain, they are standing in puddles--wordlessly still in rows. The front row corner faints, others pick him up. The men weave back and forth as they begin their fifth hour of standing. No water, no food. One says to another "I bet he's hiding." Another says "He's probably dead." It becomes clear to us that they're being punished for being one prisoner short. But it isn't explained to us until several minutes in. The camera moves down row after row and shows us face after face of men at the edge of their ability to survive. The music swells, we crane-shot above the lines, we watch as old and young men struggle to simply remain standing. The score comes in more loudly now and the combination of haunting angelic music and men struggling to stay in line and remain conscious is almost more than can be taken. It happens around the 1:14 mark, if you rent the DVD. I've watched these four minutes several times over and over. I will never forget it.

We may have reached a saturation point in Holocaust films, but FATELESS finds a new way to tell the tale. With far fewer words, more faith in the knowledge of its audience, and a depiction of the minute-by-minute life of a prisoner.

Go see it.

***^ Wilmington
A- Schwarzbaum
A- Murray
8.7 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB



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