'Fateless,' Faithful to the Kertesz Novel The Hungarian film Fateless is the coming-of-age story of one boy, cast against the Holocaust. It's based on the autobiographical novel by Imre Kertesz, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.
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'Fateless,' Faithful to the Kertesz Novel

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'Fateless,' Faithful to the Kertesz Novel

'Fateless,' Faithful to the Kertesz Novel

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And now history on the wide screen. The Hungarian film Fateless is set against the Holocaust and takes place in part in concentration camps. The movie is based on the autobiographical novel by Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz. Like the book, it's a coming-of-age tale of one boy, his first job and love, and his rebellion against authority. Susan Stone reports on the translation from book to film.

SUSAN STONE reporting:

Fateless is an epic film woven together from small details.

It opens and closes with a variation on the same image. A boy crosses a windswept square in Budapest. As he walks towards us, he casually smoothes down his billowing coat. There is a yellow star pinned to his lapel.

Unidentified Child: (As Gyuri) (Hungarian spoken)

STONE: Gyuri Köves is not in school today because his father has been called up for forced labor. It's 1944, and Hungary is turning against its Jews. Fourteen- year-old Gyuri's parents must sell their business and valuables. His days of school and card games with the lovely neighbor girl are over. But this time of upheaval is not presented as overly ominous or melodramatic. Instead, the focus is on Gyuri, and rightly so, says the film's director, Lajos Koltai.

Mr. LAJOS KOLTAI (Director, Fateless): You need to a corrector, you need a hero to fall in love, and then you want to follow his life. That's the secret for the cinema. So you go after him and you want to see his next day, next hour, next minute, and the next month. That's what we do. We go with him. We don't think about Holocaust yet. We just go with a human being because he's having an interesting story, having a great face. I want to know his future.

STONE: One day, Gyuri is removed from a bus with no idea what will happen next. It's presented almost like the beginning of an adventure. Then he's deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald. On the way, he decides to accept what he calls the secret of his universe, that anything can happen at any time, including death. He's become fateless, Koltai says.

Mr. KOLTAI: What it means to be fateless? To me, for us, I mean, for Imre and me, to be fateless means when somebody take you from the bus and force you to a totally different fate.

STONE: It's a world few today can understand and much the same world that writer Imre Kertesz lived through. He struggled 10 years to find a language to explain an experience that seemed to have no logic.

Mr. IMRE KERTESZ (Nobel Prize Winner and Author, Fateless): (Through Translator) I want to find a language which describes the state, the state which is also entitled fatelessness, and it was very, very difficult, but it was the main point of the novel that to have this language and these preconditions of language in a radical way throughout the whole novel, because the language and these preconditions develop their own logic, which is different from the common, everyday knowledge-logic, which we know from everyday life. This is the logic of the camp, and a logic which is being developed also by the hero in order to survive the camp.

STONE: Kertesz brought his analytical step-by-step approach to the screenplay he wrote for Fateless. He asked Koltai to tell the story without flashbacks or archive tape. Koltai even shot the film chronologically. It's a story that some have called unfilmable because of its unsentimental treatment of one of the worst times in history.

Mr. JIM HOBERMAN (Film Critic, Village Voice): Well, I wouldn't have thought it was possible, and I thought that they did make a first-rate movie out of this.

STONE: Jim Hoberman, a senior film critic for the Village Voice and an admirer of Fateless, first the book and now the movie. It's Koltai's first film as a director. He made his name as a cinematographer on films such as Being Julia and Malèna.

Mr. HOBERMAN: The director, Lajos Koltai, had to look for a kind of visual equivalent to the way that Gyuri would be experiencing the world, and one of the ways he did that was by, in a way, sweetening the image, which is a little jarring. I happen to think that it was successful.

STONE: The director's visual pallet melts from the warm, golden tones of Budapest family life to the greeny grays used for the most painful, desperate moments. In one scene, men in striped uniforms stand in lines swaying in exhaustion like branches in the wind. In another, Gyuri and a group of boys arrive at Auschwitz after a grueling train journey. The color is already beginning to bleach from the scene as a waxen-faced German officer questions his age.

Unidentified Man: (As German Officer) (German spoken): Wie alt bist du?

Unidentified Child: (As Gyuri): Sechzehn.

STONE: He's been told by the other prisoners to say he's older than he is, and the lie saves his life. He runs to join his friends, and the boys congratulate each other, as if they've made it onto a sports team rather than off a death list.

Unidentified Child: (As Gyrui) (Hungarian spoken)

STONE: This is not your typical Holocaust film, says Jim Hoberman.

Mr. HOBERMAN: The triumph of the film, in my opinion, is to be able to make these events very present for the spectator, and I think that's extremely difficult given the fact that for some people, certainly, the material is familiar and that we understand this kid's fate even if he doesn't.

STONE: Though many critics have praised the film, Fateless was overlooked by the Golden Globes and the Oscar nominations. But people are going to see the move, even in limited release. Especially telling is the response in director Lajos Koltai's home country. Hungary, he says, has never completely come to terms with its role in World War II. Now millions are confronting it in his film.

Mr. KOLTAI: So we broke the numbers in Hungary. We are on the highest number of the audience, and the teenagers went back two, three times to see it because they just find a hero first, they find a fate which can happen with them any time today everywhere in the world. That's my very sad message.

STONE: In the film, the young hero Gyuri offers another. He says there's nothing to unimaginable to endure. For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone.

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