As weary Hungarian Jews sit packed together in a cargo railcar, unsure of where they're being taken or whether they'll survive, a ray of light squeezes through a crack, illuminating a swirl of snowflakes.
There is deep, alarming beauty in Lajos Koltai's Fateless. It's not surprising, considering Koltai is a cinematographer-turned-director, but it's not necessarily what one would expect to find in a Holocaust movie.
Koltai's poetic imagery fits, however, with Hungarian Nobel laureate Irme Kertész's screenplay. Fateless, which ranks among the best film depictions of the Holocaust, is based on Kertész's memoir of his childhood experience in a Nazi concentration camp.
The film follows 14-year-old Gyuri, played with considerable restraint by Marcell Nagy, whose piercing gaze conveys a complexity of thoughtfulness and emotions.
Gyuri's story is told in short bursts, like a scrapbook of memories, instead of a traditional narrative.
We start with young Gyuri, typically preoccupied with his teen life and the cute girl who lives next door. The Nazi occupation came late to Hungary, and at this point is still new and unexpected. Gyuri is resentful of the occupiers, especially because he and his family are not particularly religious Jews. When his father is instructed to report to a work camp, his family and neighbors still hold on to optimism that the audience knows will prove false. They also tell him this suffering is part of who he is and that he should resign himself to his "common Jewish fate."
When Gyuri is randomly picked off a bus with other Jews and shipped by train to concentration camps, he still struggles to reconcile his identity as a Jew and a Hungarian, and just how this "common fate" applies to him. Death, he decides, could come at any time to anyone, and in that realization he somehow musters up a feeling of freedom. Gyuri also falls in with a fellow Hungarian who teaches him keys to surviving he must keep a crust of bread in his pocket as something to hold on to and bathe to keep up his dignity and self-esteem. He shows him how to keep hope and his sense of humanity.
Koltai and Kertész find power in a steady, even-paced delivery. They avoid grand moments and big sweeping emotional scenes, instead quietly following Gyuri's day-to-day travails. It's in these mundane moments, with devastation all around, that we see the source of Gyuri's hope. Starving prisoners find joy in their favorite flavor of gruel; a father shares a tiny chunk of meat, a treasured find, with his son; others recite prayers that Gyuri doesn't understand, but the fact that they still have faith is remarkable in itself.
When an emaciated Gyuri returns to Budapest, his homecoming is bittersweet. Neighbors tell him to forget what's happened, to move on. Others want to hear of the horrors he endured in the "circle of hell."
Gyuri will not simply move on, nor will he only dwell upon the horrors he faced. His story is one of humanity and survival, one that illustrates that, even in the face of unbridled hatred, love and hope will find a way to endure.
In Hungarian and German with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. and 9:45 p.m., Friday-Saturday, March 10-11, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. Call 313-833-3237.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].