By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 11, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

In his work as a cinematographer on such Istv án Szab ó films as Sunshine and Mephisto, Lajos Koltai has excelled at creating a visual quality as reflective of light as etched amber. In Fateless, a disturbingly beautiful film that marks his directorial debut, Koltai applies that same painterly taste in palette and composition to a Holocaust story that is, of course, only one of millions. And in the juxtaposition of cataclysmic matter-of-fact misery and cinematic poetry, the filmmaker finds a calmly stunning way to convey the experience of living with death as something intimate, and, unnervingly, almost natural.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Hungarian Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész and built in vignettes, Fateless follows the random fate of Gyuri (expressively still Marcell Nagy), a 14-year-old boy in Budapest whose Jewish identity means little to him when he’s taken off a city bus and deposited first in Auschwitz, then Buchenwald. Survival doesn’t suffice to describe either the movie’s profoundly unsentimental attitude or the instinct with which, at war’s end, a dead-eyed Gyuri returns to Budapest, vomited out from one hell to what now feels like another.