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Lajos Koltai has worked in film for decades, making his reputation as cinematographer for Mephisto director István Szabó. The two Hungarians continue to work together—most recently on 2004’s Being Julia—but Koltai has also shot for other directors: Giuseppe Tornatore, on Malèna and The Legend of 1900; Menno Meyjes, on Max; even Albert Brooks, on Mother. During that career, it would have been entirely reasonable for the 59-year-old image master to look for a project he could direct himself. He says he didn’t.

“This book found me,” insists Koltai of Fateless, the 1975 novel that became his directorial debut. “A lot of people in America and Italy and Hungary, which is where I’ve worked mostly, asked me, ‘Why aren’t you going to make a film?’ They were interested to see what I would do as a director. I was always waiting, waiting—35 years in the business. I waited for the moment when something really came to me.”

Imre Kertész’s semiautobiographical account of a teenager’s experiences in World War II–era Budapest and a succession of German concentration and work camps came to Koltai from the writer himself, who gave it to him in 2000. At the time, the book was 25 years old but not especially well-known, even in Hungary. Serendipitously, the decision to film the novel was boosted by Nobel judges, who gave Kertész the literature prize in 2002.

“I read the book when Imre Kertész gave it to me,” explains Koltai, who’s granting interviews in a Scott Circle hotel the day after Fateless closed the Washington Jewish Film Festival this past December. “I was in Morocco to finish Malèna for Giuseppe Tornatore. I was reading every single day because I never found anything so beautiful in Hungarian as this book. So I read and I read, and even I sneak into the toilet sometimes to read. Giuseppe Tornatore is a very energetic guy….You’re so tired at the end of the day, you just fall into bed. But I just read another five pages, another five pages, and I found something I never did before.”

Reading the book, Koltai suggests, was something that made him begin to think like a director. “At that time, nobody had asked me to direct. [Kertész] just gave it to me to read, maybe as cinematographer,” he says. “And I felt something happening to me, that this was more than just a normal book to make into cinematography. I felt all the images in this film. Everything was in my head. What the camps look like, what the boy looks like, what the family looks like at the beginning of the film.”

When he returned to Hungary, Koltai was invited to meet Kertész over dinner. “I still didn’t have the position as director, so I was just talking to him like a friend,” Koltai says. “And he had a great question for me. He said, ‘What do you think about linearity? Because this kind of story cannot happen any other way. You have to make your next step, and the next step, and the next step. No other possibilities. You can’t jump in and out of time. And that’s not attractive to a filmmaker. What do you think about it?’”

Koltai responded favorably: “Finally, we can go into the person, into the human being, and look out of him. It’s a totally new perspective about the Holocaust because it’s not just the Holocaust but a whole life even after that, when he gets home. It’s a human being’s story as we follow this boy.”

As Koltai remembers the exchange, that answer clinched the job for him. “‘This is my book, this is what I wrote down,’” Kertész told him. “‘And nobody understands it. So I want you to direct this film.’”

Once the agreement had been struck, Koltai says, the novelist withdrew. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be there. This is your film. I give you something which is mine, and you give me back your vision of it, which is your present to me.’ He came to the set only once, at the very beginning, to see the family. The family faces. Even the boy. He hadn’t seen the boy before, just in a picture. And he said, ‘I’m not coming anymore.’”

Although subjected to some on-set tinkering, Kertész’s script remained faithful to the book. The novelist did add one scene, in which a Jewish-American solder (played by Daniel Craig) encourages the boy, Gyuri, to emigrate to the United States. The novelist didn’t want to end the movie with the liberation of the camps, Koltai says. “So [we made] a scene where the Americans are offering you a future. You can go anywhere. But all Eastern Europeans think, ‘I want to be home.’ It doesn’t matter if you have a home or not. Because the American shows him Life magazine with a destroyed Budapest. There’s no Budapest anymore. But he wants to be home.

“It’s very important to make this decision to go home,” Koltai adds. “Even if you have an offer for a nice future. So that was the only thing that [Kertész] put in for me. It was a present for me.”

It was only after Koltai had agreed to direct the film, he stresses, that the author got to add “Nobel laureate” to his résumé. “Everybody thinks we did this film because of the Nobel Prize—no! The Nobel really made everything real. Before, people said, ‘Yes, do it,’ but nobody took money out of their pockets. The moment the prize was announced, the Hungarian government gave us half of the budget. That was the basis to find partners, to go to the Germans and the English.”

As it turned out, their backing wasn’t enough. Halfway through filming, Fateless shut down for more than a month when the money ran out. “When I saw the boy again,” Koltai recalls, “I almost had a heart attack. He had changed so much. Afterward, I realized that this change was good, to show the passing of time. So I used every negative thing for the positive.”

Thanks to his acceptance of linearity, the director had shot in chronological order. That meant he and editor Hajnal Sell› could assemble a version of the movie’s first hour to show to potential new investors. “So I showed the one-hour film to people who are able to give us money,” Koltai says. “And everybody said, ‘One thing is sure—we have to finish this film.’ And that was good sign.”

After completing the second round of shooting, Koltai transferred the images to digital editing software so he could create the film’s distinctive color scheme. Fateless opens with what he calls “the kind of richness you have when you’re around your family,” moves to the near-colorless environment of the camps, and then returns to a muted Budapest. “If I wanted to make a picture about the Holocaust, to show what happened there, how it happened,” Koltai says, “I have to go close to the minds of the people, which is a black-and-white area, and then come back again at the end to the color, when we get home. But it’s not the same as at the start, of course.”

Although he extols digital postproduction, Koltai has no intention of ever abandoning film. “I can’t work with anything else. Because then I know what’s my picture,” he says. “I know the frame exactly. If you see the film, you see how precisely framed everything is. I framed everything, and then I gave it to my cinematographer. It’s not just because I’m a cinematographer. But because this film has a language that is visual.”

He turns to Washington City Paper photographer Darrow Montgomery, who’s chuckling appreciatively as he captures Koltai portraits on 35 mm. “You agree with me!” the director exclaims. “Because you’re using film. I hate the digital camera! I never use a digital camera.”

Excitedly, Koltai endorses a remark by Steven Spielberg, “who said, ‘If you still find one meter of film…I want to shoot on it.’ I really believe that film has a special smell. I know about this from my film school. I don’t want to forget.

“It’s magic,” he adds. “When you put the film into the camera, you feel this smell. You’re very happy about it. It’s film!”—Mark Jenkins