If you've read Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertsz's semiautobiographical novel about his experience during World War II, you can attest to the book's wallop. Yet the thought of someone turning Fateless into another cinematic tour of the death camps was enough to sour the stomach; one more repetitive representation of the same telltale terrors, no matter how gut-wrenching, would only reduce the book to more grist for the melodramatic "Holocaust film" mill. Indeed, there's a numbing familiarity in director Lajos Koltai's adaptation, as the 14-year-old hero (Nagy) suffers increasing indignities and takes a train ride toward the abyss ("We're stopping somewhere....The sign says 'Ausch-Witz....'"). Most viewers will gird themselves for the usual danse macabre.
But when the movie switches its focus to innocence irrevocably lost in its second half, Koltai starts concluding each sequence with a simple dissolve to darkness. And with that technical motif, the director somehow finds a fresh way to communicate the despair and hopelessness of life in the camps. Treating this overwhelming tragedy as an endless loop of sickening blackout sketches effectively restores its horror. By the time the protagonist quietly views the maggots rooting in his leg wound—peering straight into the camera before the scene fades—the film's nightmarish vision is almost unbearable. Even after salvation arrives, Fateless bypasses any easy ways out; stark to the very end, its bleak inhumanity makes it all the more powerful. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.)—David Fear