Cinematography in The Lives of Others

The writer/director of The Lives of Others Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck recalls that in an early discussion about the picture’s look with cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, he told the cameraman he wanted “to create a world where you feel the only warmth comes from the people themselves.” Bogdanski immediately understood this; like so many involved in The Lives of Others, the West Berlin native had encountered the chill of the GDR during his youth, when he crossed the border to visit relatives in East Germany. “I can still remember the smell and look of things in East Germany at that time,” says the 41-year-old cinematographer. “The streets were very dark. Everything was happening inside, in private. There were no big cafes outside, and public spaces were mostly empty.

Bogdanski said “Florian and I discussed The Lives of Others for more than two years.” “When we started to talk about visuals, we watched a lot of American films from the Seventies, some very interesting stuff: The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, Harold & Maude, M*A*S*H. Florian was very influenced by those films.” The director explains, “There was something about those political and psychological dramas that seemed so plausible in that setting – the characters seemed real and cool at the same time. Those filmmakers were aiming for greater realism, looking for light and images that wouldn’t immediately call attention to big studio sets and a certain level of artificiality. I also liked the films’ slightly subdued colours; they didn’t have the vulgarity that was present in the Sixties and somehow returned in the Eighties. The Seventies films have a strange dignity.”

In keeping with the muted palettes of many of those films, “we talked about not having too much contrast in The Lives of Others,” says Bogdanski. “I had never tried to create that kind of look before – I’d rather work in the opposite direction – and I was surprised when Florian said he wanted to do it. I didn’t like the thought at first. When you’re creating a soft contrast look, you have to be careful not to make it look too flat, too ugly; you have to work against it with another lighting concept. But then I thought, why not? A new director gives you a chance to try new things.”

Bogdanski decided to slightly desaturate the images by pull-processing the negative. “We never wanted the image to have grain, which is, of course, something else you can consider when you’re emulating the look of the Seventies,” he notes. “That’s a quality we never liked for this film. Both of the Vision2 stocks are virtually grain-free and looked fantastic when pull-processed.” Achieving the desired look through the digital-intermediate process was not even considered, he adds. “First of all, this was a very low budget film, about euro1.2 million. Second, Florian was determined to be analogue all the way, even down to recording the sound that way. The sound engineer had to find an old Nagra!” Donnersmarck adds, “I wanted The Lives of Others to be pure cinema, in a way – no digital effects, no major lab tricks. It became clearer and clearer that the film didn’t call for excessive stylization. Even though we did pull-processing, the effect is quite subtle.”

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