Though Hungarian Lajos Koltai is a world class cinematographer, who has won awards and commanded the attention of the best directors, he’s wanted to do more. His directorial feature debut, Fateless, is another film about the Holocaust, but is unique in its approach. Told in a very flat, unadorned style it walks us through the experience of a 14-year-old boy whisked away from his family and into a concentration camp and work detail. Unlike so many other films about the subject, this story is told so unsentimentally as to almost be numbing — which makes the experience even more terrifying. The L Magazine: What made you decide to make a film about the Holocaust? Lajos Koltai: I just read this very beautiful book. Family-wise I’m not really into this question, but I just find something special in this literature that I never read before, especially in Hungarian. So when I got this book I was still a cinematographer. At the time I was in Morocco filming Malena [with Monica Bellucci] — which got me an Oscar nomination. Because director Giuseppe Tornatore is a very tough guy, you need 250 percent to be there, so there was no time to read it. Sometimes I just went into the toilet to read another five pages, because I just loved it. So when I get home, I had a great meeting with [its author, the Nobel prize-winning] Imre Kertesz, because somebody was quite sure he had real interest in what I thought about it as filmmaker and as friend.
The moment we saw each other, and I tried to talk about this book, Kertesz gave me the first version of a script. He asked me a very good question: “What do you think about linearity?” Because it’s a linear story, and this story can’t happen any other way, just step by step, it goes to the end.
I said, “This is what I like,” finally making it a story about a human being who has to go forward, has to go to the end, and he goes inside this small guy and tries to look out of it, and it’s totally the opposite way every other film [like this] happens. Mostly every other Holocaust [film] is coming from outside to inside, which means they’re using all those pictures, all those elements, but you know, to push you back into your seat, because everyone’s using the same pictures, the same archives, the same images of the Germans with the dogs and everything; we didn’t want to do anything like this. It’s very special in Hungary during this time, because the teenagers are going to see this film, and the next two or three times they cluster together to see this film, they will say “Jesus Christ, this is my story. So can this happen with anybody in this age?”
The L: How did you find the boy? He [Marcell Nagy] is remarkable. Is he an actor? LK: He’s not an actor. He did a film before, but he was a classmate in it, without lines. He’s from Budapest, and was there on the first day, and he was number three, and I remembered his face; it was a nice face, almost too beautiful. I had to cast all the 144 roles, since there was no casting director in Hungary. I did it alone in one year. The most difficult thing to find in the boy were two characters: the innocent boy who’s ready to understand this terrible world, and the old wisdom at the end when he’s goes against the neighbors. When I talked to [the actor] and said “you are the boy,” he collapsed, he absolutely collapsed.
The L: Who has been your favorite director to work with? LK: For 26 years, I’ve worked with Istvan Szabo. and we’re still together, and I don’t want to leave him alone. I just finished my fifth film with him as a director of photography.
The L: The look of your film is remarkable; it’s one of the things that sets it apart from the usual Holocaust film. LK: There’s no other way to do it. Imre Kertesz said if you want to do this in a new way, it’s through visuality. And he knows that with this kind of literature, you can transfer it with visuality. If you make it visually, the message is right there in images. It’s much stronger than talking and talking and talking about things.