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Oscar nominated cinematographer Lajos Koltai is making his directing debut with the adaptation of Fateless (a Jewish boy’s story by Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertész) and he’s not getting an easy run, with a 12 week break in production after the money ran out. But filming has restarted and Ennio Morricone has already composed the main theme. Andrew L. Urban meets Koltai in Budapest for this exclusive interview.

If the worst nightmare for any film director is to have the producer tell him half way through the shoot that the money’s dried up, for a first time director this scenario is perhaps even worse. Lajos Koltai, the Oscar nominated cinematographer of Malena (for director Guiseppe Tornatore), and films like Sunshine, Mephisto and Taking Sides (all three for Istvan Szabo), takes a sip of his coffee and grimaces. “It was just going to be a few days… then a week, then a few weeks. We ran out of money and had to refinance….” It took the Hungarian Prime Minister to direct millions into the project to ensure its completion.

It is 12 weeks later that we meet in the café of a suburban Budapest shopping mall near his home, just two days before he starts shooting again.

“The boy has already changed … the seasons have changed,” he says with stoic calm, as he recounts how he found the Nobel Prize winning novel, Fateless (Sorstalanság) the inspiration for his directing debut, at 58 and at the height of his career as a cinematographer. 

“I was shooting Malena in Morocco,” he recalls, “and had the book with me. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down. I even took it to the toilet. I was captivated by it.” That was two full years before the writer Imre Kertész, won his 2002 Nobel Prize for literature, but Koltai knew it was special. The story, partly based on biographical events in the life of Kertész, is about George, a young Jewish boy in 1940s Budapest whose life changes when a policeman orders him to get off the bus, a step that leads to George being sent to concentration camps. Born in Budapest in 1929, the Jewish author was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and then taken to Buchenwald where he was liberated the following year. 

"your life can change"

“It’s in Hungarian and it’s by a Hungarian and it’s about a time in history … but it’s not about the Holocaust. The crucial point is that your life can change with someone just saying ‘get off that bus’ … and suddenly you have a new life.”

Together with a group of boys of the same age, he is rounded up in a bus during a raid in Budapest in 1944. First they are locked up for one warm, tedious day in a customs house, while a befuddled young policeman phones for more detailed instructions. Then they are detained for a few days in an old brick factory, to which several thousand Jews are eventually brought. After discussions with the Jewish Council, they accept an "offer" to enlist voluntarily for work service, since the trains, as it is explained to them, will undoubtedly be more crowded later on. "There was therefore really not much room for consideration."

One year later, he is lying in the hospital barracks at Buchenwald, the only survivor among his group of friends, a yellowish skeletal figure with a pointy old man's face and festering sores everywhere under his skin.

The book has now been translated into every language, even the language of the gypsies. What distinguishes Kertész’s book, which the Swedish Academy singled out in the citation for the Nobel Prize ("for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history"), is its unique tone: “For him Auschwitz is not an exceptional occurrence. The shocking credibility of the description derives perhaps from this very absence of any element of the moral indignation or metaphysical protest that the subject cries out for. It is the ultimate truth about human degradation in modern experience."

Koltai is deeply committed to retain this aspect in the adaptation. He showed his friend and colleague Guiseppe Tornatore some of the early footage during the 12 week break in production, and the Italian director was stunned. “And that was before we see any sign of the Holocaust, before people are being taken away….”

"a beautiful story"

Having shot the first hour chronologically, the disruption stretched Koltai’s imagination and creative powers. He also had to reschedule all the cast, many of whom were already working in theatre again. “I had to change a lot of things, including the way I use the seasons. Most of the actors are friends of mine, but I knew it would be difficult and it was, but it’s such a beautiful story. And the prize is for literature, remember, not for the Holocaust. I wanted the film to have international appeal, and I even thought of casting English actors.

“But then I realised it would be impossible to see the concentration camps with people speaking English. So we have people speaking their own language. There are very few roles that are not Hungarian…some minor support roles, which have been cast to appease some financiers [German in particular]. But even the distributors said, yes, it has to be in the original language – and THAT will make it international.”

When he first read the book, Koltai wanted to meet the author, who was also keen to meet the famous filmmaker. “We made arrangements through a mutual friend and had a private dinner… a very nice evening. I tried to talk about the book but he was too embarrassed. He already had a screenplay in progress with another writer. He gave it to me to read and when we next talked about it, within 10 minutes he wanted me to do the film. I think it’s because I said I didn’t see it as being about the Holocaust.”

“It’s not about me,” Kertész told Koltai, meaning it was seeing the world in general through the particular. 

Koltai saw 4000 boys to cast his lead character. “I was looking for two things: he starts out very innocently yet he observes and is a bit worldly. And he is also a bit grown up at the same time. He tries to survive by understanding. He tries to analyse…and so he acquires wisdom. It’s important to capture the internal…”

"reality has to be almost colourless"

The film begins in warm colours, reflecting the warmth of the family and the colour slowly fades. “I think it isn’t right to see images of the Holocaust in colour. All our images of it are in black and white. And reality has to be almost colourless,” he says in accented but fluent English, polished over 15 years working in the US.

Although Koltai will ‘create’ the pictures we see, he has chosen the talented younger Gyula Pados as his Director of Photography, who – coincidentally - shot The Sin Eater starring Heath Ledger as well as Hotel Splendide, starring Toni Collette. And Ennio Morricone has already started work on the score. “I went to see him at his house in Rome a couple of times,” says Koltai. “He was keen to see the pictures – and now we already have the main theme.” It’ll be recorded in Budapest.

His enthusiasm is evident. “Look, it feels the perfect moment for me to direct and the it’s right subject. The actors believe in me… I cast 144 roles and they all want to be in the film.”

We get stuck into another cup of coffee as spring sunshine beams across the plaza, and Koltai talks about his 25 year working relationship with one of Hungary’s great filmmakers, István Szabó. “We’re like brothers,” says Koltai flatly. Szabó takes every script he gets first to Koltai; “I’m his first reader….”

Koltai definitely plans to direct again, but will still take up the camera for Szabó and a couple of other favourite directors if schedules work out. “Szabó and I see the world the same way; what can we do that’s different to tell the world.”

Published June 3, 2004

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Lajos Koltai
(Andrew L. Urban photo) FATELESS REVIEW

Imre Kertész

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