Hungarian boys Holocaust nightmare is a quiet shock

Thanks to a trio of hyper-dramatic and almost unbelievable true-life epics — “Europa, Europa,” “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” — the Holocaust action movie has become its own genre.

Filmgoers now expect as a matter of course a parade of indelible incidents, incredible bits of luck and stunning plot turns, capped with a moving yet optimistic ending.

You have to leave those expectations at the door, however, to fully appreciate the assiduously restrained Hungarian film “Fateless.” An impeccably crafted series of vignettes imbued with an overriding sense of dislocation and shock, the movie aspires to record the imperceptible rather than the histrionic.

“Fateless” shows us concentration camps through a young boy’s disbelieving eyes, and is a coming-of-age story like no other. This extraordinary film adheres to such an understated, deliberate approach that by the end of its two hours and 20 minutes it achieves a kind of purity.

“Fateless” had its Bay Area premiere last fall in the Mill Valley Film Festival, and opens theatrically Friday, Feb. 24.

Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz adapted the unusual screenplay from his 1975 semi-autobiographical novel about a reserved but friendly 14-year-old Budapest boy.

Gyuri Koves (portrayed with great sensitivity and intelligence by Marcell Nagy) is caught up in his first crush, with a Jewish neighbor, but he is not fated to have a normal adolescence. His father is being shipped to a labor camp, and the film opens with several scenes of awkward, excruciating goodbyes. While some family and friends are naïve about what lies in store, others plainly acknowledge the worst.

Gyuri himself is rounded up soon after and, to his bewilderment, put on a train whose destination turns out to be Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is designated for work, and “Fateless” follows his pained existence from Birkenau to another harsh camp.

The lad can’t fathom his new reality of upheaval and absurdity, but he has no choice other than to adapt and survive. “I was trying to grasp the simple secret of my universe: I could be killed anywhere, at any time,” he recounts in voiceover.

“Fateless” is not an existential essay on the indifference of God or the cruelty of man. Nor, for that matter, is it an emotional rollercoaster ride with peaks and valleys. It is a film of small gestures in which a slap in the face becomes an act of shocking brutality and a simple “thank you” is a sign that civilized humanity isn’t dead.

Lajos Koltai, a veteran cinematographer (“Sunshine,” “Max”) making his directorial debut, has created a film of brush strokes and details, every one of which is utterly convincing.

Ultimately, Koltai’s triumph is pouring beauty into every frame without romanticizing the story or distracting our attention from Gyuri’s plight. Needless to say, that’s a dauntingly narrow line to walk, but his decision to use almost no music contributes enormously.

Although the film spans less than two years and never drags, it feels to us as if five years or more have passed in the lad’s life. Certainly it seems that way to Gyuri when he returns to Budapest to look for his family. Everyone who weathered the war in their insular, airless apartments seems to be stuck in amber, and alien to him.

Or perhaps he’s the alien, with no one capable of helping him accept the profound realization that life went on while he was in the camps, and that the world will continue on its way despite what happened there.

For Gyuri, it is a mystery without an explanation or solution. It is cause for both comfort and sorrow. It is, finally, what makes “Fateless” so calmly and quietly devastating.

“Fateless” opens Friday, Feb. 24 at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.