Festival de Cannes 2019


Cinematographer Joerg Widmer discusses his work on Terrence Malick’s film "A Hidden Life"

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By choosing to make a screen adaptation of Franz Jägerstätter’s letters from prison (he was a young Austrian peasant and conscientious objector against Nazism), the director of Days of Heaven has delivered another three-hour-long film about activism and loyalty in which the editing forms the work itself.

After Emmanuel Lubezki, the man with three Oscars, it’s the great German Steadicam operator Joerg Widmer (who has regularly shot with Malick since The New World) who alone took charge of the photography. With a now-well-established set-up that focuses on natural lighting alone. A meeting with this maker of shadow (and light). (FR)

Terrence Malick’s most recent films are more like visual poems than films, in the normal sense of the term… How does one create such an object ? For example, is there a screenplay for the crew ?

Joerg Widmer : On the earlier films, such as To The Wonders, there wasn’t really a screenplay, but a sort of Bible that contained up to five hundred pages full of notes, comments and visions. A bit of a chest of ideas… On A Hidden Life, everything is based on the collection of Franz Jägerstätter’s letters. Terrence Malick asked me to begin by reading them and looking for inspiration from the original text. Basing the film on Franz and Fanny, their love for one another, which is this incredible strength that keeps them united faced with the dictatorship and their activism. Nonetheless, a screenplay was produced this time, and of course I read it, but I wasn’t sure we’d follow it for the film. When you work with Terrence Malick, you’ve got to be ready for anything. Making scenes in one place, then doing them again somewhere else with different choreography and different lighting, adapting to the weather and the seasons. For this film, it meant translating a few key words such as the beauty of nature, harmony, the love of being amongst family… And how the turn political events took slowly disrupted this life.

Are there rules or any specifications ?

JW : A few rules are set down at the beginning. When we met to prepare for the film in South Tyrol, the question came up. The first thing was about the choice of lenses. Terrence wants a very wide point of view with maximum depth of field, so that the viewer can take in the film the way he or she wishes and is able to focus on the faces or the landscapes or the sets. A way of letting the viewer make his or her own frame within the image, a bit like when you watch a film in an Imax theatre. We did tests between the 18mm, 14mm, 12mm and 10mm Master Primes. After a few days, the 18mm was sent back to the renter. We pushed further and also tested the 8mm, which I happen to like a lot. Finally, we kept the 12mm lens with the 8mm for a few shots. The 10mm was less beautiful optically and the 14mm was kept as security, in case an accident happened ! So, the choice between the lenses was very minimal, either 12mm or 8mm on the RED Dragon in 6K or 5.5K, which sometimes slightly narrowed the very wide angle shot. The stairwell of the courthouse is shot with the 8mm, for example. So is a part of the trial. The secret to shooting this type of sequence and characters indoors with a wide-angle is to remain centred on the actors. Because as soon as you start to go towards the edges of the image, it becomes impossible to keep the faces in their normal shape.

Why the RED ?

JW : I like the RED a lot because it makes for very flexible and efficient treatment in post-production. The new IPP2 Pipeline that was recently developed is a very powerful tool for keeping control of the image on set, in my opinion. Thanks to the expertise of my DIT, Christian Kuss, we were able to generate colour graded dailies that were almost definitive in terms of the image rendering. This workflow led us to use two RED Dragon camera bodies on A Hidden Life, one pre-configured for the skin tones in bright lighting, which was less sensitive, and the other was optimized for low lights and night sequences… In terms of grip equipment, all shots in this film were taken with a Steadicam, on a slider or on the shoulder. No dolly or crane. We shot like a documentary, following the movement of the actors constantly in long takes that were between 4 and 42 minutes long… that’s the maximum length that can be recorded on an embedded hard drive. In order to give us control over the image, the camera was outfitted with a focus motor and an aperture motor remote controlled by the first AC, Alexander Sachariew, which allowed Christian to act in real time on the exposure time and to maintain the ideal exposure in function of the movements and changes in lighting.

How does he work with the actors ?

JW : Shooting very long takes and not knowing exactly what is going to be kept changes a lot of things. The actors themselves admitted that for the first time in their careers, they weren’t just acting in front of the camera but literally became their characters.

Some of the scenes were even made in multiple versions in different sets. For example, the indoors of Franz and Fanny’s house were done in five or six houses to achieve the result on screen. Terrence sometimes gives a few key lines to the actors and then the rest is improvised, in a single take without a reverse shot.

We never know exactly what will be kept from each take during the long post-production of the film (nearly two years for A Hidden Life), which character will remain or will disappear from the final cut…

Were you able to light the film ?

JW : Yes, for example we lit the large, three-story-tall, yellow hall of the prison with three indirect 4kW HMIs through the ceiling glass because the contrast and background light were simply too strong. But shooting in 12mm or 8mm doesn’t leave a lot of room for the spots. In any case, Terrence Malick’s films always emphasize natural light. The rule is to always place yourself against the light. The camera is always placed in the shadow and is pointed towards the light.

We look for the best place to put the camera in function of the light and its relationship to the image. Our only way to control or play with things is to create shadow with black fabric that my crew moves in synch with the camera to darken the reflections on faces as much as possible. A sort of documentary shoot with the help of a fiction crew to control nature as best as possible…

So, you’re more of a shadowmaker than a lightmaker on this film ?

JW : Yes, it’s true ! We’re constantly looking for shadow on set. But that’s constant on this film : in the houses and in the prison with its very wide and bright hallways, we spent our time closing the windows and darkening everything out of the field, behind me, as much as we could.

You were talking about shooting everything in 12mm, how do you manage outdoor day scenes with a sensitive digital camera ?

JW : Filtering was not possible. We might be able to put a 6/6 filter carrier that covers the 12mm but the filters add reflections or double images, so it was out of the question. We spent most of our time at f.16 or f.22, which in any case met Terrence’s desire for maximum depth of field.

Let’s talk about the sequence in the barracks where the conscripts are watching the newsreel…

JW : We’d prepared that scene with prop lighting, and thought we’d shoot at night. But Terrence Malick preferred to try to shoot it at sunset. My concern was to keep just enough details on the projection screen so that the viewers could read what was being projected and to use it both as the main light source and as a narrative element. At a point, as dusk fell, the projection became whiter and whiter…and in the end, I think that’s what makes the sequence a success. The relationship between the faces in the half-darkness and the screen is a good signal for the way that politics irrupts into the lives of these men. The impact of the coming war and the upheaval it will cause…

The execution sequence is another unique moment…almost expressionist !

JW : For this sequence, even though it seems stranger, with the large curtain, with the executioner character and his hat, we really took inspiration from eyewitness accounts and authentic materials from the court-martials of that time. These assembly-line executions did exist in this form, and people would go in one after the other, like in a summary abattoir, with a little bucket of water poured out after each decapitation. The only notable exception in terms of the camera is that we filmed a couple takes of that scene in black-and-white, and they were coloured in later on. That’s probably what makes it stand out in relation to the rest of the film.

A word on colour timing ?

JW : Ten days of colour timing in Berlin were enough to finalize the 4K copy, and Christian Kuss was also in charge of it. Personally, I find it very logical to entrust this work to someone who was present during shooting, and who, moreover, was in charge of creating the dailies. To finalize colour timing, he was able to use the metadata and the colour and contrast values that we’d decided on for the dailies…

(Interview by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)