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In 1944, as Hitler's Final Solution is being implemented, a 14-year-old Jewish boy (Marcell Nagy) from Budapest finds himself swept up by cataclysmic events beyond his comprehension. Separated from his family and brought to a concentration camp, his existence becomes a surreal adventure, where he is never quite sure if he is the victim of his captors or of an absurd destiny that metes out salvation and suffering arbitrarily. Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész adapted his semi-autobiographical novel for debut director Lajos Koltai (renowned cinematographer of Being Julia and Malèna)..

 The World Upside Down

Many think that artists are somehow special people. There is no denying it: I too like looking back at my audience from the cover of a magazine, because a good image can make me a more influential presence in their lives. I too experience success as pleasure. And in exchange for that, failure is like doomsday to me. As I’ve said, like many of my colleagues, I too relish in being thought somehow different. We are, of course, all well aware of having been molded out of nothing but clay by the creator, and that if there is anything special about us, it is asking questions like, “What is the first thing a child sees, having been brought back from death?” In our profession, the answer should be formulated in an image. Finding words for what the child may feel or think would be merely circumventing the issue. I can’t be fooling around here. I need to come up with an image, something memorable and powerful, since my hero is actually snatched from the jaws of death by a Polish hospital orderly, his fellow-prisoner.

At this point, you may want to ask yourself, just to make sure you fully understand the challenge, “Surely the scene is momentous enough as it is, so why does it call for extra emphasis?” Well, because it does. There is no logical explanation, there is only a missed heartbeat. But that is a sure indication that I am not just directing my hero, with however great empathy, but that I am actually him. The moment my heart skipped that beat, everything was clear. What came to my mind were the first images I retained from my childhood, images I had kept carefully suppressed deep below the threshold of my consciousness. I must have been around three or maybe four when, one summer spent by a river, I somehow got out of the sight of adults, and waddled into the water. The stream suddenly swept me away, and it was only by a stroke of luck that they found me. They held me up by my legs to let drain all the water I had inhaled and swallowed—and when I opened my eyes I was amazed how on the other side of the river the tips of the poplars reaching into the sky were now pointing downwards, how earth had moved up to the zenith.

Those who will see the film may acclaim the fact that I have “devised” a great symbol for the Holocaust. The world upside down. I am, of course, pleased by the suggestion, because this image, one of the hundreds that make up Fateless, is rooted in my innermost self. Yet it is also an image that is naturally given, first of all because the boy is hanging, head down, over the shoulder of the orderly, and, more importantly, it is natural in a sense that is vital to the enthralling emotional effect of Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész’s writing. Fateless owes much of its force to its unique vision, to the fact that its hero understands the horrors of the extermination camps not as horrors, but as naturally given. Where the world is turned upside down, it is natural for human life and human values (whether of the guards or of the prisoners) to be turned inside out, and what should be natural, that a child is saved, becomes extraordinary.

During the shooting I was often rebuked for my maniac insistence on “image, image, image.” People were saying that Lajos Koltai is still looking at the world as a director of photography. “You got it all wrong, friends”—and I started to explain again and again, a hundred times if necessary, how it had nothing to do with me. Audiences both in America and Europe have a collection of the most powerful images of movies, whether drama or documentary, in their heads. The recurrent situations were suggesting these images almost as self-evident, and the purpose of their use was—quite rightly, I think—to enrage the viewer. These images presented the world of the KZ lagers as black and white. So much so that many found it quite shocking that I wanted to film Kertész’s puritanically-phrased novel in color. Even my closest collaborators had that “collection of images” active in their heads, and that made them forget what the novel actually says: “even captivity has its everyday moments, indeed, true captivity is nothing but gray everyday life.” And gray should not be created from the obvious colors: black and white, but by mixing the extreme values of the color material, because the boy has encountered in the lager rather attractive, colorful images as well. Unforgettable moments, as it were, were also burnt in his memory forever, not only beatings, starvation and death. Those beautiful images ought not to be left out, either. Or could we possibly say about the paintings of the medieval masters of the passion that they are not beautiful? Such beauty might be more effective in suggesting that the world is actually upside down, and that the crowds are cajoled into being good prisoners by telling them that’s the only way they can survive.

I have often been asked whether my hand was trembling at all when Kertész handed me over the possibility to turn Fateless into a movie, like a blank check. No, it did not; rather, it filled me with true satisfaction that this great master, who created a closed linguistic universe in his novel, after only a few searching conversations thought me capable of creating a similarly closed visual universe. When I cashed in the check, Kertész said I was a faithful steward of the talents I had been entrusted with.

I am frequently invited by young people to talk about my profession, about my work, and of course Fateless is always in the forefront of their interest. I am always happy to accept such invitations, although I believe that movies should really speak for themselves. But I grasp such opportunities to remind my audience that the material movies are made of includes everything that surrounds us; indeed, in the form of dreams and visions, even what we call mental imagery. The information conveyed by images is more trustworthy than most of the information mediated through language. A visual lie is more easily exposed than a verbal one. Our world is, of course, inundated by images. But you should be able to distinguish the authentic ones from mere illustrations of texts, songs, or even of other images. So look inside yourselves for the most momentous images of your lives, and be prepared to comprehend such images. It’s your task to turn the world back again, and stand it on its feet!