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'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.

The film is set in 1944, a time when Hungary was turning against its Jews. But director Lajos Koltai says he chose to focus on 14-year-old Gyuri rather than the overall upheaval.

"You need a character, you need a hero," Koltai says. "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."

Gyuri is deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald. Along the way, he accepts that anything can happen at any time, including death. It's much the same world that writer Imre Kertesz lived through.

Kertesz brought an analytical, step-by-step approach to the screenplay he wrote for Fateless -- a story that some called "unfilmable" because of its unsentimental treatment of the period. Kertesz asked Koltai to tell the story without flashbacks or archive tape.

The first-time director drew on his past experience as a cinemtographer to establish a visual palette that melts from the warm golden tones of Budapest family life to greenish grays used for the most painful, desperate moments.

It's not your typical holocaust film, says Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman.

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

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stone
Susan Stone is a contributing reporter/producer for NPR based in Berlin, Germany. Before relocating to Germany for a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship in 2005, she was a producer, editor, reporter and director at NPR’s headquarters in Washington for 10 years. Most recently, Stone was a producer and director for the weekend editions of NPR's award-winning news magazine All Things Considered, where she created a signature monthly music feature for the show.