Everything about Robert, Berto, Lelouch..., and the Leica Summicron

By Ariane Damain Vergallo, for CW Sonderoptic - Leica

par Ernst Leitz Wetzlar

[English] [français]

At the end of the last Claude Lelouch’s movie, Everyone’s Own Life and Intimate Conviction, Ariane Damain Vergallo met, on behalf of CW Sonderoptic-Leica, its director of photography, Robert Alazraki, AFC, and camera operator Berto, to talk about lenses, but not only...
Robert Alazraki
Robert Alazraki
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm


Everything about Robert...
The "Robert" in question, a pillar of the Association of French Cinematographers (AFC), is, of course, Robert Alazraki, who has operated his light meter and flashed his impish smile on film sets for nearly half a century. But the man won’t waste any time "reminiscing or reflecting on his track record".
His main preoccupations right now are films yet to shoot, and transmitting his knowledge and experience to students at the E.S.A.V. — the Marrakech, Morocco, Institute of Visual Arts (he heads its Cinematography division) — as well as, lately, to the trainees at the Ateliers du Cinéma (Film Workshop) in Beaune, France.
In fact, just a few months ago, Claude Lelouch called on him for the third time in three years. (How come they had never worked together before is a mystery to most.)

After Salaud on t’aime (2014) and One + One (2015), their new joint venture is Chacun sa vie et son intime conviction (Everyone’s Own Life and Intimate Conviction) which they just finished shooting in Beaune. The city of Beaune is the epicenter of a major project dear to Claude Lelouch : setting up a workshop, the purpose of which is transmitting all-encompassing film knowledge and expertise to thirteen young trainees — 13 being Lelouch’s "lucky"number — who will learn their craft on a feature shoot.

And so, Robert Alazraki enrolled his very first class in the entire Everyone’s Own Life and Intimate Conviction preparation. The first step consisted in comparing the three cameras that were to be used :
- the Sony Alpha 7, which Lelouch bought for his previous film,
- the Canon XC10, to become the "Trainees’ camera"
- and the Sony F55, to be the "main" camera.

The second stage was to compare three sets of prime lenses, considering that all zoom lenses had already been determined :
- the Zeiss T : 2.1 set,
- the Cooke S4 set,
- and the Summicron-C set.

Before I say "And the winner is..." — but at this point, you probably have more than a clue — allow me to tell you a story.

It took Robert Alazraki a while to decide which profession he’d want to embark on, although all those he was attracted to had one thing in common : a passion for form. Initially, and briefly, he was drawn to architecture. Then, before devoting himself entirely to cinema, he opted for photography.
As a young man barely past his teens, he left his native Morocco and came to Paris in the 1960s. He became a stage photographer (opera, theater, music), but, unable to afford a Leica still camera, he enviously eyed that of his brother Georges, also a photographer : a gorgeous Leica M3 with a Summicron 90mm lens.

At the time, London was the "swinging" capital of the world. Heeding its seductive call, Robert went to a film school there, still clicking away at anything — or anyone — that moved : Michelangelo Antonioni shooting Blow-Up " ; a Pink Floyd concert, the Living Theater — all photographs that were exhibited in 2015.
Returning to France, Robert Alazraki became a full-fledged cinematographer whose filmography is now familiar to most. A few years ago, his brother Georges died — Georges, his beloved elder...and owner of that Leica M3 with the Summicron 90mm lens.

When I asked Robert why he had finally chosen the Leica Summicrons-C, he answered : "For every reason you can imagine, but above all — since I believe our relationship to visuals is tinged with emotions of all kinds — I’d say : in memory of my brother."
He also mentions more rational reasons, along with downright subjective ones : "Hard to beat in terms of brilliance, contrast and definition". "So full, so smooth." "Superb glass." "Magnificent lenses".

And finally, an amazing "reason", the very wording of which ends our conversation on a sweet note : "Plus, they are so... gentle !"

Berto
Berto
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm

Lelouch, Berto and the Summicron 21mm
Call it an accident, mere chance or just a coincidence. When they crossed paths around 1a.m. on the Croisette during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, [director] Claude Lelouch and [camera operator] Berto hadn’t worked together for almost 20 years.
At some point, Lelouch said something anyone would dream of hearing from a director whose career has been exceptionally long, varied and successful - it was almost like a line from one of his movies. Lelouch simply told Berto : "I’ve missed you." And their collaboration was on again.

Lelouch idolizes sequence-shots and, therefore, is an unabashed zoom lover. Consequently, the choice by [cinematographer] Robert Alazraki of the Leica Summicrons-C had puzzled Berto who, at the time, thought : "These will never come out." True enough, the medium-range and the long lenses remained in their respective cases. Meanwhile, short lenses have practically reigned supreme, particularly the 21mm. In the Summicron-C set, the short lenses are very close in range : 18mm, 21mm, 25mm and 29mm — a choice justified by the constraints of location shooting, when one must adapt to the space.
Using a short lens indoors can be perilous as it intensifies the presence of the horizontal and, more importantly, the vertical lines of the walls, doors, windows and furniture. Which, film after film, made the Summicron no-distortion short lenses an absolute must.

For wide lens shots indoors, Berto at first suggested the Zeiss 14mm (the Summicron 15mm came out only at the end of 2016 !). Which made sense, for Lelouch loves that lens. But then, he did not find it "full" enough. For him, everything you show must be essential.
He felt that the 14mm consistently proved too wide, whereas the 21mm brings everything closer and gives it a clearer, sharper look, making the shot to "feel" just as wide, yet giving more "presence" to the set design while allowing for more diversified over-the-shoulder type shots. For some indoors sequence-shots, zoom lenses simply could not be used, even with an equivalent focal length. So Berto chose the 21mm, since all the short lens in the series have the — incredibly minimal — focusing-distance of 1 foot (30cm) and a 10cm bulk that allows it to fit in the tightest spaces.

Berto et Claude Lelouch en tournage
Berto et Claude Lelouch en tournage

Case in point : the long hand-held sequence-shot of actress Béatrice Dalle playing a prostitute turning her last trick. After preceding her from room to room in her small apartment, Berto ends up in the kitchen, stuck between the wall and a refrigerator as Dalle opens it and brings out a cake that she offers to that last john, who then enters the frame for an ultimate exchange with her.
At the end of this long shot, the actors were incredibly close to Berto, exuding an intimacy and an intensity made perceptible in a large part by the fact that their faces were not distorted, even at such a short distance.

For his forthcoming Chacun sa vie et son intime conviction, as he did for all his films, Claude Lelouch chose the Scope 2.35 format in its Super 35 version, which allows the use of spherical lenses such as the Leica Summicrons-C. The Super 35 is also a format that Lelouch "invented" for Les Uns et les Autres in 1981, which Berto discovered five years later when they first worked together

Thirty years and nine films later, Berto is still amazed by Lelouch, the director who trained him, gave him his chance and, perhaps just as importantly, the "flight hours" he needed to become the cameraman emeritus that he now is.

(Translated from French by Henri Béhar)