My Ten Favourite Hungarian Films – Fateless (Sorstalanság)

I remember waking up one morning in October 2002 and hearing on the radio that the Hungarian writer, Imre Kértesz, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “Who’s he?” I asked K. “Never heard of him”, she said. “Nor have I”, I echoed. He was at that time a novelist relatively unknown in Hungary and almost completely unread outside of his homeland. But since winning the world’s most prestigious literary prize he and his works have been propelled firmly into the limelight. Since then many, but but not all, of his works have been translated in other languages such as German and English and are now widely available.

Movie poster for FatelessHis most famous novel, specifically cited in the Nobel Prize Committee’s recommendation, is Fateless (Sorstalanság). It tells the semi-autobiographical story of György “Gyuri” Köves, a young Jewish Hungarian teenager who in 1944, like so many of his contemporaries, was rounded up by the Nazi’s and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The bulk of novel tells the story of his survival in the camps, and it ends as he returns home to Budapest. Like so much of Holocaust literature, Kertész seeks to answer the question, Why?. Why did this terrible tragedy occur. His answer is that there was no answer, there was just the experiences of the camp in all their horror. The camps and his experiences simply happened, without any sense of ‘fate’. The tone of the novel is almost matter-of-fact as Kértesz observes the evil around him. Yet there are also moments of happiness amongst all the sufferings and tribulations and there is no hate to those who made him suffer so much.

To make this novel into a film worthy of its many qualities was no small task. Lajos Koltai, a renowned Hungarian cinematographer, who has worked extensively with the great Hungarian director István Szabó, made his directorial debut with Fateless. It is a magnificent film that stays remarkable true to both the content and spirit of the novel. This was aided in no small measure by the screenplay written by Kértesz himself. The history of novels being turned successfully into films is littered with failures and success is rare. Happily this is not the case.


The film follows the novel faithfully but as a film it stands on its own merits. It follows the same linear time frame of the novel, there are no flashbacks, no archival footage. The film, like the novel, follows Gyuri as his family begins to understand the tragedy unfolding, to Gyuri being taken off a bus on his way to work and then sent to Auschwitz and then his time in the camps until his eventual return to Budapest. The story unfolds through the eyes of a 14-year old teenager in an surprisingly unsentimental manner. We are taken on his journey from a healthy teenager beginning to experience his sexuality to the cold camps where he suffers deprivations and near-death.

Given Koltai’s background, it is no surprise the film is visually stunning. (The actual cinemetographer is Gyula Pardos, a student of another great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond who has such films as Deer Hunter, Deliverance and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to his credit. With such a rich tradition of great Hungarian cinematographers behind the film, the quality of the film is surely no surprise.) For example the initial scenes, that take place in Budapest before Gyuri is sent to the camps, are full of warm, melancholy colours. Yet when he reaches the camps, the light is drained out the scenes with a grey, bluish overlay that captures the dreariness and awfulness perfectly. We see the light again as the camps are liberated.

The star of the film is of course Gyuri, brilliantly played by Marcell Nagy. Koltai auditioned 1,000 boys and studied 3,000 photographs before selecting Nagy. He was chosen, Koltai said, because “He has a clear, beautiful face.” Indeed the face shows the transition from innocence to wisdom essential to the story. And in a strange twist of fate, the Nagy matures in front of us. Koltai had insisted on filming chronologically but at one stage money for the film dried up and shooting was stopped for four months. By the time they resumed Nagy had in fact grown 10 centimetres! So the Gyuri who returns to Budapest has truly been transformed from innocence to someone wiser.

The film’s strength is that it shows the terribleness of Gyuri’s experience in the camp with this lack of sentimentality and anger. For example in one scene we see Gyuri lying his bunk, near death with a badly injured knee, next to a fellow inmate who has died. Gyuri says nothing so he can receive an extra piece of rotting bread of his dead companion. This act is simply a question of survival, rather than morality or ethics.

Photo of Imre Kértesz

The author of Fateless, Imre Kértesz

One scene in particular is worthy of mention: the inmates are lined up in the cold, drak early hours of the morning and forced to stand for hours. After a while they begin to gently sway and the camera soars above them showing the almost hynoptic movement of the inmates. It is cinema of the highest order.

Mention must also be made of the music score by Oscar-winning Ennio Morricone. It is superb and as haunting as befits the story.

The film was the most expense Hungarian film ever made costing some NZD14 million and had 144 named roles and as many as 500 extras. It was a critical success both in Hungary and outside and was nominated as the Hungarian entry for best foreign language film at the 2006 Academy Awards. As I mentioned above, money did however dry up during the filming and it was only government intervention and funding that finally secured the film’s completion. While most of the actors are Hungarian, Daniel Craig of James Bond fame, plays a small part as a American soldier who wants to help Gyuri find a new life in America. (This scene is not in the novel itself. One imagines the executive producers wanted a hook for a more global audience.)

Screenshot showing Gyuri after he has returned to Budapest

Gyuri returns to Budapest

The film ends with Gyuri returning to Budapest and faced with a mixture of disbelief and discomfort from his fellow citizens – and his remaining family. An uncle describes the camps as hell. Gyuri disagrees saying “Hell doesn’t exist, but the camps do”.

In the final scene, Gyuri’s narration describes something that is quite shocking: happiness. “There’s nothing too unimaginable to endure. And in my own way I already know that, lying in wait for me like some unavoidable trap, is happiness. Even beside the chimneys in the pause between torments there was something similar to happiness. People only ask about the horrors, whereas I should talk about the happiness of the camps next time, if they ask. If they ask at all. And if I don’t forget myself.”

The author himself said of this, “I took the word out of its everyday context and made it seem scandalous It was an act of rebellion against the role of victim which society had assigned me. It was a way of assuming responsibility, of defining my own fate.”

This wonderful film shows us the true meaning of fate.

Fateless, (2005), screenplay by Imre Kertész; directed by Lajos Koltai. Starring Marcell Nagy, Béla Dóra,Bálint Péntek and Daniel Craig. Running time: 140 minutes.

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