Cinematographer Christian Berger on Angelina Jolie's By the Sea
The selection of Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea for AFI Fest’s opening night has instantly turned the drama into an Oscar contender despite the critics being divided in their opinions of the film. The film’s editor, original script and director now appear on various awards season prediction lists and the film seems to further cement the reputation of acclaimed cinematographer Christian Berger.
Berger is known for his multiple collaborations with Michael Haneke and even received an Oscar-nomination for The White Ribbon (2009).
The cinematographer is the developer of the Cine Reflect Lighting System and the winner of a series of top industry awards including the LA Film Critics prize. He also received recognition from the NY Film Critics Circle and from the US National Society of Film.
“They told me that they found some of my statements about lighting on the internet, and maybe my European cultural roots might have played a role as well,” Berger tells KFTV, explaining how director Angelina Jolie-Pitt and her husband Brad Pitt – who co-stars and produces the film - recruited him for the project.
By the Sea was filmed in sunny Malta while in The White Ribbon Berger battled with limited light and storming thunder in Germany. Is one environment harder to film in than the other?
“I had to battle against the darkness in The White Ribbon,” Berger says. “It was the opposite in Malta as a bright hot summer in the south of France was part of Angelina’s script. I would say that it is the same thrilling challenge to handle harsh sunlight outdoors (and to bring it indoors) as it is to create darkness in a hotel room.”
Is it true that his latest work only used natural light as was reported in some industry press recently?
“It’s a wrong way to put it,” says Berger. “I don’t ‘use’ natural light. I create a light which looks very natural because for me there is no light more beautiful and richer in atmospheres than natural light in all its variations. But it’s a nice compliment if people think there was no other lighting used.
“I think I do just the same as what all the famous painters did in the past. I observe very, very precisely the quality and the ‘behaviour’ of natural light.”
It is interesting Berger mentions the great painters as a reviewer once commented that The White Ribbon being so beautifully filmed that every shot is a work of art. Are such high aesthetics as important for Berger?
“Not really,” he says, “I don’t really know what ‘a beautiful image’ is, except that it should be ‘alive’.
“It’s all about the old question ‘are we only able to depict flesh or also the soul?’. That said, even with all our high-tech equipment I still cannot say why one image is alive and the next one is not. That’s still magic. In any case, the form has to come out from the script and the director’s intentions. It has to take into account the whole scene, the whole film.”
Much has been said about the relationship between a film’s director and its DoP. So what are Berger’s views on this?
“To me, it is a lot like the relationship between a conductor and the soloist,” says Berger. “I am here to serve the visions of writers, directors, actors and my own, and help make them visible. What I have learnt as a filmmaker is to respect the actors’ work, and how lonely and exposed they are once I push the start button on my camera.”
Jolie has set By the Sea in the 1970s as a period free from today’s many technological distractions. What does Berger make of the many apps that have become an integral part of work on and off set, and what advice he would offer aspiring cinematographers?
“I don’t see apps as a problem if they make sense,” Berger says. “By that I mean that there are very useful tools around but they can become a problem if you replace your own senses with them.
“I would advise those entering the profession to study human perception, always search for the shortest way between your eyes and the subject and don’t believe in tools; the best camera sits in your head and in your heart.”