Crystel Fournier, AFC, discusses her choices on "Great Freedom" by Sebastian Meise

par Crystel Fournier

[ English ] [ français ]

Since her graduation from La Fémis in 1998, Crystel Fournier, AFC, has distinguished herself as a cinematographer mainly through her work on three of Céline Sciamma’s films (Naissance des Pieuvres, Bande de Filles, Tomboy). In the last few years, she has chiefly worked on foreign productions, including Great Freedom (Große Freiheit), the third feature film by German director Sebastian Meise (Stillleben, Outing), selected in the Un Certain Regard competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. (MC)

Crystel Fournier : On December 23, I had just wrapped up on a shoot, and I received an email with the screenplay attached, offering me the opportunity to work on Great Freedom. We had a Skype meeting and I traveled to Berlin on January 1st to do initial scouting, as the film was to begin shooting in early February, and everything was rushed at the start. This is a Austro-German film, which began shooting in Vienna for all of the locations outside of the prison, and then we went to Germany for the rest : Magdeburg for the main prison building and Berlin for the basements.

Single location, multiple periods

CF : There are three time periods in the film : the first is at the end of World War Two ; the second is in 1957 ; the third, in 1969. We wanted to predefine an artistic direction for the set design and the lighting for each of these three periods, in order to differentiate them, and as soon as I saw the prison, I knew I wanted to integrate the lighting in the frame, at least for the wide shots where you can see the whole central hall of the prison.

The idea was to rely on the types of lights that would have existed in each of the three time periods. We chose tungsten bulbs for 1945 ; at the time, those huge bulbs were sodium, but we took them and retrofitted them in tungsten. Then, we chose fluorescent tubes for 1957 and 1969. The difference between these two periods was mainly in terms of color : yellow/green for the former and something much colder for the latter. We chose 5,000K tubes that we outfitted with minus green and 1/8 CTS for the 1950s part. A few stayed like that in the 1960s and then we replaced the rest with 6,500K tubes for the cold feeling.

Plans au sol de l'implantation lumière pour les périodes 1957 et 1969 - Documents de travail de Crystel Fournier
Plans au sol de l’implantation lumière pour les périodes 1957 et 1969
Documents de travail de Crystel Fournier

No matter the period, the light was always hitting the actors from directly above, the type of raw light that highlights the faces and darkens the walls, even in smaller spaces. It makes the actors shine in certain locations, when they move, and keeps the backgrounds shadowy and dense. We set up Titans in Kino Flo housings, which allowed us to rapidly change the colorimetry, going from day to night or from one period to another. They were always attached to a bar.

For the daytime windows, there was a large glass wall on one end of the prison, where we installed a cherry picker and two 18kWs. On the roof of the prison, we installed spotlights that shone through the huge skylights to recreate a daylight effect. At night, we changed them to mercury, which matched the few nighttime outdoor shots around the prison. The mercury lighting didn’t reach the inside of the cells too much, that way we avoided having too much of a mix of red and green, but the night lighting could be seen when they went to their windows.


At night, in the cells, there was also a night light that allowed the guard to see the prisoner when he looked through the peephole. It wasn’t meant to look realistic because the idea was for Sebastian to be like an infant in his mother’s womb, and so it was a red/orange glow that let faces and fragments of the body be seen but without really making it clear where they were coming from. The rest was plunged into darkness, and in that light, it was rare to be able to see the walls. Practically speaking, it was simply a 650 W with a cone to channel the light.

This effect was very strong during filming, and, in this case, we pushed it even further during color grading, to densify it even further. We used masks to bring out only the faces. Overall, during color grading, we tended to accentuate what we’d already done, especially for the nighttime shots. It was nice to have a director who wasn’t afraid to venture far into the darkness.

The film wasn’t filtered at all, and there was no diffusion either. The idea was to keep a raw aspect to the lighting. The only thing I could use to soften or to blur was using other lights, or reflection, to keep the shadows on the faces but bring out the eyes. I was just managing the contrast, keeping the idea of top light.


In the solitary confinement cell, the only light the prisoners had was when the guard opened the trap in the door, to give food or to see what was going on inside. We adopted the principle that it would be a very strong light that would blind the prisoner, so the light was on a dimmer which would enable us to recreate the moment of dazzling light followed by a more normal exposure. This was a very quick burst of light, so as not to flood the cell. The rest of the time, they were in total darkness. During shooting, we kept a dim backlighting that made silhouettes appear and enabled a presence to be felt on screen. These were often transition scenes that were supposed to enable a transition from one period to the next during editing. In the end, we realized it worked better to transition into total darkness, it made it stronger. So we erased the border of light that appeared around the edges of the bodies during editing, and ended up with long periods of total darkness where everything happens in the soundtrack and which enabled us to end up in a different time period.

Small locations, big preparation

CF : The location of the main prison was about to be transformed into residential apartments, so we were allowed to break down walls between cells so that we could have a greater number of camera angles and not always be shooting in the angle of the door or the window. The walls were put onto rails, which allowed us to remove them and replace them quickly, so the cells were a sort of pseudo-studio, without the advantages of studio shooting, but at least we weren’t confined to 7 square meters. Similarly, for the solitary confinement cells, we had one wall that could be moved, and the rear wall, which was completely recreated, which meant that we had as much room behind us as we needed, especially for filming in the angle of the door, which was important during interactions with the guards.

There was a big discussion about whether we could carry the camera on our shoulders. One of Sebastian’s references was Un Prophète by Jacques Audiard – a film that was almost entirely shot from the shoulder – but, after we’d talked it over, we decided that it wouldn’t fit with our film. This film is much more poised and has a lot more closeups at certain points. We sought out shots that would create a feeling of closeness with the characters. In the end, that has its limits ; namely, the enormous amount of makeup work it requires. Because the film spans nearly twenty years, we had to age them or make them look younger depending on the era. So, there was a limit to how much we were able to shoot the skins, so as not to reveal how much had been done in terms of makeup.

We tried out several series of lenses, and we ended up choosing the Summilux, mainly for their large focal panel, which allowed us to have a good range of focal lengths in tight spaces, each lens close to the next (35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, etc.).

Sebastian wanted to see what it would look like on vintage lenses. He also wanted to try wide aperture lenses, to play on the shallow depth of field. Therefore, we’d also tried the Lomo series, except for the short focal lengths (which we ended up using a great deal), but they have terrible deformations on the vertical, so we eliminated the Lomo series immediately. After, we tried the Zeiss GO lenses, which Sebastian liked a lot because they had the vintage quality he was after, and which he found lacking in the Summilux. But in the end, the choice came down to our ability to have a complete series of Summilux lenses, which wasn’t the case for the GO lenses.

The film was interrupted for almost three months because of lockdown. That gave Sebastian time to watch his dailies and to begin the work of editing. By the end of lockdown, he wanted a lot more camera movements, particularly Steadicam shots, for the entire 1950s period, which we’d just begun filming prior to the interruption. That was a good thing because it creates a different dynamic, characteristic of the period, and which could easily be assembled with the interactions between the characters at that point in the film.

Tournage dans la cour de la prison - Photo Thomas Reider
Tournage dans la cour de la prison
Photo Thomas Reider

The Steadicam was also used in the nightclub scene…

CF : From the start, Sebastian wanted to shoot that scene as a long take, where the camera would follow the character walking about the place he was discovering. The goal was for the scene to bring the prison to mind : even though it was a place of complete liberty where homosexual men were finally free to live out their sexuality, the scenes the character sees, and the place being as it is, the way it is lit, and the little niches that are reminiscent of the solitary confinement cell, he cannot find freedom there. It was interesting to film the perambulation with the Stead, to imagine it, to set up the lighting and the staging, and to constantly be in his point of view. In the same shot, sometimes the camera is facing him, sometimes it is behind him, and sometimes it takes on his gaze. We wondered whether we should focus on what he was seeing or focus on him. We shot several versions, and we kept the one where we stay with him the entire time. In any case, what’s going on in the background is more than easy to guess.

What about the two scenes shot in celluloid ?

CF : There was a third scene in 16mm, but which didn’t make it into the final cut. Their status was always to be filmed by someone. In the first 16mm scene in the toilets, the police put a device behind a two-way mirror. We shot the scene from behind a dirty glass (with a real two-way mirror, we lost way too much light). There are a few reflections that were added in during post-production that made it look like there was really someone behind the pane. We tried it with real people during shooting, but it didn’t show up enough or it didn’t happen at the right time.

The scene in the 1950s, which was shot in Super8, is Hans filming his boyfriend. We did it in Super8 because that was a camera that could be used by amateurs at the time. During editing, Sebastian chose to keep the perforations on screen. That underscores the amateur film aspect and immediately evokes the Super8. This scene was done outside of shooting, so I wasn’t there when they filmed it.

Would you have shot it differently ?

CF : No, because the idea really was that they were filming one another, so all one had to do was to adjust the camera and hand it over to Franz so he could film Thomas. But the scans are almost not color timed at all. We just corrected a slight pink tint, but we left the rest as-is, without trying to match them with the rest of the film. The idea for that sequence was to be an amateur film with all the accidents that they have.

(Interview conducted by Margot Cavret, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe for the AFC)