ONFILM Interview: Christian Berger, AAC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Christian Berger, AAC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"Great painters are able, with a few brushstrokes, to provoke our brains into replacing missing information. It's like an ignition to the imagination. That is the power to be artistic, to create emotion. The technical is a way to get where we want to go, but what's most interesting is how each individual uses it. Technology is always changing, but the artistic is a more archaic perspective. I am convinced that a director of photography today only finds the best result if he or she finds the most modest and efficient tool for the situation. What endures is a strong need for humans to communicate, to tell their stories. Film captures images with a quality that is higher than ever, and much higher than the digital formats. We should never work under the dictate of technique. It's easy to say but difficult to do."

Christian Berger's fifth collaboration with director Michael Haneke, Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), was awarded the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and the 2009 European Film Award. The film also earned Berger best cinematography honors at the Los Angeles Film Critic Association Awards, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and the Movieline/Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards. Their previous credits include Benny's Video, 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher), and Caché (Hidden). Berger's other credits include Amos Gitai's Disengagement, Luc Bondy's Ne fais pas ça, and Markus Heltschl's Der gläserne Blick (Dead Man's Memories). Berger also directed the features Raffl and Hanna Monster, Liebling.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

by Bob Fisher  

QUESTION: What are some of your childhood memories?BERGER: I grew up in Innsbruck, Austria, in the Tyrol. I was surely influenced by my father, who was a painter who did both fine art and scenic backgrounds and set painting for the theater. When he came back from the war, he had lost one hand and one eye. That brought me a clear idea about fascism and where it could lead. My mother was a dancer who started a gymnastic institute. She was always more interested in the artistic, interpretive aspects of dance and gymnastics, and she always fought against the ideology of the sports world. That was my childhood atmosphere.

QUESTION: Were you interested in photography as a boy?
BERGER: Not consciously. I remember for Christmas I received my first click box, when I was about 8 years old. I did some photos where there wasn't enough light. Then my father tried to explain to me that the film had to be developed, but I didn't believe him, and I secretly opened the camera to see what was on the film. My father did photography in connection with his painting, and he made 8 mm stop-motion animation films.

QUESTION: When did you first become interested in cinema?
BERGER: I saw Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and I fell in love with Jeanne Moreau - how she looked, how she moved. I wanted to be in that world somehow. I met her just two or three years ago. She had a cameo in Disengagement by Amos Gitai, a film I was shooting, and for the first time, she was in front of my camera. I was nearly blushing. She is in her 80s now, still a beautiful woman, and still very tough. I told her the story of my falling in love with her and that she was one reason why I went into the cinema world. And she said, flirtatiously, 'And today, no longer?' It was a big day for me.

QUESTION: How did you get your start?
BERGER: Where I lived, there wasn't much cinema at that time, at least nothing I was interested in. I was then very marked by the Nouvelle Vague, Godard and Truffaut, all of them. But after my basic school, when I tried to find a film school, I found no prospects. Then I found a job with a lighting engineer, a man who became very important for me later. He had nothing to do with film. His company had offices in Innsbruck, Munich and Switzerland, and they planned lighting for hospitals, streets, bridges, airports, and the like. I had three years there, and then I bought a Bolex. I had no idea - nobody was interested and there were no jobs, but I said that I had to do film. I worked for a year as a camera assistant near Vienna, where at first I just cleaned cameras and lamps. I worked as an assistant for one director who couldn't pay me, but he gave me some 16 mm equipment instead. Immediately I was able to find work for Austrian television. I was there at just the right moment. I started in newsgathering. I was a journalist. I had to write the reports and shoot 16 mm black-and-white reversal film.

QUESTION: How did you transition from news to narrative work?BERGER: That business grew very quickly, and in about 1972 I founded my own company. We were five or six people, and eventually I could do television documentaries and magazine shows, rather than just one- or two-minute reports. With each project, we set aside some of the money, and we would use that money to make small films with friends. Around this time I also started to make plays for television. At one point, we had dreams of running our own public access television station, but luckily I didn't fall into the video trap as quickly as some of my colleagues. The best quality video at that time was U-matic, and now there aren't any machines to play that back with. By the end of the 1970s, I stopped doing the news jobs.

QUESTION: Where were your small films exhibited?
BERGER: We always had screenings at hotels, guesthouses, and then the first small art house cinemas. They were small, but always sold out. Meanwhile there was a lot of television work in Germany and Austria. I had good connections in Hamburg and Berlin. I had a fully equipped camera bus suited for that kind of work - television plays and the like.

QUESTION: What came next?
BERGER: We had some success with my first feature film, Raffl, which I shot and directed. We were invited to Cannes, and won some recognition from other festivals. Commercially, it was zero, but critically it was a big success. I traveled around the world going to festivals, which was a great experience for me. But I was a greenhorn, with no contracts, so although we sold the film, I was presented with a bill rather than a check. But it turns out that Michael Haneke liked the film very much, and he told me later that this film was the reason he wanted to work with me. At that time, I was working as a director and cinematographer, but I became tired of that. It is so energy-sucking, and in a way, it's always an emergency situation. I decided that I preferred camerawork, and directed my last narrative film in about 1995. I still direct documentaries sometimes, because it's you and the camera anyway.

QUESTION: How does your documentary experience inform your narrative work?
BERGER: I think documentary experience is very useful for directors of photography in the feature field. First, in documentary, you develop an instinct for what will happen in the next moment. Also, you sharpen your ability to see natural light because you are obliged to use the situations you find. Sometimes you can use some light to help, but usually very little. Most people are blind to existing light, which can be incredibly beautiful. In documentary, you develop the ability to analyze, to see, and to wait for a certain moment, and hopefully find something magic. It doesn't work all the time, but if you don't search you'll never find it.

QUESTION: You have developed a new philosophy of lighting, which you've used exclusively on your last seven films. The system has been used for some other films including the 2008 feature film Revanche by Götz Spielmann (nominated for a 2009 foreign language film Oscar). The equipment is called the B&B Cine Reflect Lighting System, but you've said that more importantly, it's a new way of thinking about lighting. How did that come about?
BERGER: The system was developed to mimic nature. Like the sun, it uses a single powerful parallel beam light source, and a wide range of reflectors, diffusion and scrims to redirect and alter the character and distribution of the light. We use it to light entire scenes, including key, fill and ambience. The result is an efficient, unobtrusive lighting rig that uses very little electricity. (More information is available at www.christianberger.at or www.pani.com.) It started when I got in touch with my first lighting teacher, who in the meantime had had a big career in architectural lighting. We connected immediately, as if only a few weeks had passed. He was surprised at my knowledge of lighting, which came from a completely different background. He talks about lighting formulas as if they were poetry. It's another language, but we are talking about the same thing. We learn many interesting things from each other. Among his many activities, he works with the European Union to develop standards for working at computer monitors. His scientific studies show that the wrong lighting conditions can reduce productivity by 30 percent. People get tired, have concentration problems, and stress. I was shocked. I thought about what we're doing with our actors. We ignore that completely. And these people have to work with their faces and their emotions! We are doing violence to these actors with our huge lighting equipment - glare, heat and a messy set.

QUESTION: Is that left over from the days when exposure required massive amounts of light?
BERGER: Yes. It's also due to the thinking that says, 'I am a big star, so I need ten trucks of equipment.' Film stocks have come so far now. Now you have to concentrate to create darkness and shadow in the frame, not light. Think of the Fresnel - it was invented in the 1820s as a way to signal ships! (laughs) My goal was not to invent a new machine, but to change the working method, to take away the violent methods of lighting, and to take away a lot of the obstacles that block up the set. It's based on the observation of natural light. It's a single luminary with differently textured reflectors and diffusers. It's a little like playing billiards with light. You can see the results in Das Weisse Band, for example.

QUESTION: How has your approach to telling stories with images changed over the years?
BERGER: What I am learning now more than ever is that it's really from the painters. I'm not talking about beauty in images, because I learned that earlier. But what I see now is that the light dynamic is the most important thing. When we look at nature, we are able to distinguish contrast ratios of millions to one. The film, let's say, can do a tenth of that, and digital video even less. I see how painters are able, with a very small light dynamic, and with just a few colors, and a few brushstrokes, can provoke our brains into replacing the missing information. It's like an ignition to the imagination. The brain says, 'Yes, that is snow.' It feels real, and that is the power to be artistic. The problem is not proving that the snow is white and the shoe is black. There is no message there. But in the way the painter handles that light dynamic and contrast range, he or she is able to create emotion. That is the secret, the magic. These are the gear boxes between the reality and the reproduction of reality. I find that very interesting.

QUESTION: What is your take on the technological changes in cinema?
BERGER: I am not scared by any kind of technological development. What endures is a strong need for humans to communicate. I want to tell you what I did yesterday, and I have to tell that story somehow. I could write a story, or sing a song, or make a movie, or paint a picture. That need doesn't look tired to me. My students have the opportunity to publish on the Internet. I would have been very happy to have that chance when I was their age. The marketing and delivery may change, but the need to give other humans my impression and my point of view - to fight off loneliness or anomie - that has been steady. I think the only art that is permanently able to cross borders is music, and movies can be very close to that. The technical is a way to get where we want to go, but what's most interesting is how each individual uses it. When I'm teaching at the Vienna Film Academy, I see in my students how difficult it can be to reject that reflex that we all have - if you have a problem, buy a new box, and the box will solve your problems.

I am convinced that a director of photography today only finds the best result if he or she finds the most modest and efficient tool for the situation. Having the latest tool is very seductive, but we can get lost in the manuals. To me the artistic aspect of our work is more important. We can't ignore technique. We have to be able to judge. Every day, something new comes out, and often it's no answer or an old answer in a new dress. The technical is always changing, but the artistic is a more archaic perspective. Only the artist can see and realize what the director wants. We should never work under the dictate of technique. It's easy to say but difficult to do.

QUESTION: Why do you prefer to shoot with film?
BERGER: The arguments are well known. The first argument is worldwide use without any translation problems. Film captures images with a quality that is higher than ever, high above the digital formats. As far as digital is concerned, it seems stupid to me to use a format that has so many drawbacks. The number of pixels doesn't interest me. I want to have comfort in the handling, and I want to have the shortest path between my eye and what I want to capture - that's it. Everything else - leave me alone. We shot a film in digital HD (Caché in 2006). We had to check the back focus three times a day besides many other troubles! It's unbelievable. We had to tell the inventor of the camera that the viewfinder was inadequate. It's like selling someone a car, and then saying, 'Ah, you want to drive with it, then you will need wheels!' Any financial advantage was gone in the first two weeks, eaten up by delays. Then there is the question of data storage. There is no long-term answer. None. People at the TV stations are spending enormous amounts of money changing every few years to the next format. That's money we could use to create something. Film negative lasts for 100 years. I see old photos taken by my wife's grandmother and they are exquisite. So what are we doing?

QUESTION: Has the public perception of digital video changed?
BERGER: Each time a new technology arrives, you find that it creates a kind of fundamentalism. There are enemies and friends. Both are blind. One only wants to preserve the old thing, which is not possible and not good, and the other says the new thing is the future and everything else is garbage. I really hate fundamentalism of any kind. It's dangerous. You need a lot of patience and you need to repeat yourself endlessly. Every generation has to redo it and learn.