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Fateless-Lajos Koltai


“What do you think about directing a film?” According to Lajos Koltai—the Oscar-nominated cinematographer on Malèna, and the regular lenser for Hungarian fellow countryman István Szabó on such films as Being Julia and Mephisto—it was a question he was asked more and more, as his reputation for lighting and capturing celluloid mis-en-scene grew throughout both what the Pentagon calls “Old Europe,” and the new.It was a question Koltai couldn’t readily answer: “I was always waiting for the right material,” he says. And, of course, that material would have to lend itself to his cameraman’s eye. “If you have it right… the image comes to you. This is the most important thing.”So, as he worked constantly behind the camera for other directors, Koltai describes himself as “waiting, waiting” for that “right material.” And eventually, that material “just found me.”It was no less than the 2002 Nobel prize-winning novel Fateless, written by yet another fellow Hungarian, Imre Kertész. Somewhat like a cross between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird, Fateless is based on Kertész’s own experience surviving the camps, in the form of 14-year-old fictional character Gyuri Köve. In an interview, Kertész allowed a rather haunting prism for his work: “When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz.”Auschwitz certainly represents the irrevocable bottom not only of what humanity is capable of, but will condone. Koltai first found himself grabbed by the material when he went to Morocco to finish work on Malèna. He and the writer shared a mutual friend, and shortly thereafter “we had our first version of the script.”Shortly after that, there materialized a pan-European production deal, about which more in a moment. But with Koltai at last set to assume the director’s chair, where, exactly, would that chair be? “I cannot direct just through the camera,” Koltai concluded early on.This was especially evident in working with neophyte actor Marcell Nagy, who portrays Köve. Koltai allows how it was “so difficult to get him into the mood”—that “mood” being a kind of “dark Zen” state of not quite existential despair, but deep grim acceptance of the fundamental absurdity of life, and the meaning of survival—that he wondered “how can I leave him after that and go behind the camera?”Koltai’s answer was to hire his own cinematographer, a “very young Hungarian,” Gyula Pados, who has since gone on to work on Basic Instinct 2. Pados was part of an EU-ish crew that reflected the various transcontinental revenue streams in this coproduction, including Italian legend Ennio Morricone doing the haunting score, and the UK’s Simon Kaye as sound mixer.“We did two films,” Koltai says of Kaye. “We made Being Julia (together).” Additionally, Kaye “doesn’t understand one word of Hungarian.” Nonetheless, “he made fantastic sound,” mostly by “hearing through his headphone what the actor does,” working off visual cues, and discussions with Koltai.But Kaye wasn’t the only old friend of Koltai’s to wind up on the set: There were a lot of “old friends,” including “the same gaffer from my first feature in ’73,” all the way to editor Hajnal Sellõ, an “old friend from my past.”But while aspects of Koltai’s set might have resembled Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso group in action, in terms of crew familiarity, there were other breaks—not just the DP position Koltai was leaving vacant. Indeed, swap those initials around, and you get PD—production designer—another position where Koltai provided a break. In this case, it was another young Hungarian, Tibor Lázár, who’d previously served as art director on films like the early-Hitler study Max, and now “built these camps in the right scale—one to one—around Budapest,” one “in the middle of a corn field.”“We became friends,” Koltai says of Lázár. Since Koltai already had quite a few other friends working on this film, Lázár may well find himself back on the director/DP’s next setBut has Koltai given up the crane-side DP’s perch in order to confine himself to the director’s chair? “My dream is to do both,” he says. In fact, he’d already “decided not to leave István Szabó alone” and went and shot that director’s latest film, Roknok, after finishing up work on Fateless.But regardless of which job he holds on set, Koltai’s own filmic ethos—not surprising for a DP—is that “it’s much better to show than talk about it.”This goes far in explaining the spare feeling of Fateless, a film of minimal dialogue, haunting images, and characters observing the world not only falling down around them, but also—at an emotional distance—their own fates.Koltai, meanwhile, found himself poised between showing and telling: He’d shot another film in Italy after his work with Szabó, but as soon as he wrapped up his interview with Below the Line, he was ready to get back to pile of scripts that had come his way as a potential director, owing to the strong critical notices Fateless was getting in Europe and in America, despite its current limited Stateside release.

Written by Mark London Williams

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