Christian Berger is the brains behind Michael Haneke's trademark visual stoicism. Shooting all but one of Haneke's films, from The Piano Teacher to the Best Cinematography Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon, Berger has been tasked with distilling complex stories into stark visuals. Their collaborations constitute the art-house equivalent of an action movie: though not much happens in a given shot, every frame contains multitudes. Blink and you'll miss the elaborate network of subtleties and hidden meanings.
Watching a Haneke film, one is intermittently aware and blissfully ignorant of the camera. In one scene from Happy End, Haneke's Cannes premiere, the camera glides effortlessly through a labyrinthine French villa, up the stairs and in and out of rooms bathed in various forms of light; in another, the camera lurks ominously from afar, drawing attention to its voyeuristic eye. Happy End charts the malaise of a bourgeois family plagued with infidelity and neglect. True to form, most of the characters are nihilistic; we witness this in extended scenes depicting the use of social media, oftentimes in the form of Facebook messaging or Instagram Live videos created by the characters.
Haneke's emphasis on minimalism inspired Berger to invent the Cine Reflect Lighting System, which the 72-year-old Austrian cinematographer used to shoot Happy End. Perturbed by the over-use of light and camera technology, Berger created a system of reflectors which, based on lighting principles from industrial architecture, reflect light in a controlled manner. Productions that use the system require only one-tenth of the wattage associated with lighting regular shoots.
At Cannes, in a picturesque hotel garden, Berger sat down with No Film School to discuss the value of his invention, his longtime collaboration with Haneke, how to use the brain's visual perception to your advantage as a cinematographer, and more.
"Your camera is not only your eye; it's also your heart."
No Film School: You've been working with Michael Haneke since his second film, Benny's Video. How did that relationship start?
Christian Berger: It was long ago! It was the end of the '80s, and he had seen a movie I directed. He liked it and he wanted to work with me for his first movie, but I was shooting a different film at that time, so I couldn't shoot his first movie, The Seventh Continent. We did Benny's Video in '91. Now, we're on to our sixth film, I think.
NFS: Why do you think you work together so well?
Berger: On the other side, you'd have to ask him, but from my point of view, I like Haneke's straightness and his radicality in telling stories. I like his visual concepts, which are always simple but not easy. It's not the same. Especially with this last film, Happy End, the nicest thing I could achieve there with him is simplicity. It is very difficult to reach simplicity because you always have to do a lot in his movies. But you can't choose one too many words or one too many images.
With Happy End, the only thing I was not sure of, as an [audience member], is whether we are ready to read long stretches of computer screen text. It's really unconventional film storytelling, but that's Haneke—he always has some controversial things.
Christian Berger with Michael Haneke on the set of 'Happy End'Credit: Christian Berger
Berger: If I compare our process with other directors, they ask for a shot list with lots of coverage—first, a close-up, then, the establishing shot. It's boring. Even if you have very fast cuts with a few cameras—a few points of view—you're just pushing the decisions for later, for editing.
With Haneke, it never happens like that. He makes the decision [on set]. It makes the film stronger if you know what you want and not later in post-production. He has very clear ideas, but then, of course, we talk and say, "Is it possible to travel here or there [with the camera]?" And he gives me freehand for the atmosphere. He will say, "How does it look when the girl comes for the first time back to her father's place? She feels foreign in that place where she has to spend the first night." And I decide [how it looks].
It's technically very challenging. For example, in Happy End, we had a very difficult camera movement scene in the villa where [the characters] are living. You don't see it, really, because the camera is so stable and I always try to be absolutely in sync with the actors. It feels very quiet, but it's actually a lot of movement. It's maximum of minimalism. The Happy End script was 50 pages. I had never done that before: 50 pages for one hour and 20 minutes.
"The ideas for lighting in the film industry are very antiquated. Most lighting these days feels like a violation."
NFS: It's interesting—you don't necessarily feel the silence as you are watching. A lot happens in the film—there's a lot of action—so you don't notice the absence of dialogue.
Berger: Each word is necessary. What you cannot say, you have to show. It's an old rule, but Haneke makes it very consequential, and I like that.
NFS: Can you remember a scene or a shot that looks very simple, but was technically complicated to pull off?
Berger: Not complicated in the sense of, like, in an action film, where you need enormous technique, but for example, the very important scene between the grandfather and the little girl in his study, we shot for two days. There was one window with an open view to the outside and permanently changing weather. So that was a challenge. But with my lighting system, the Cine Reflect Lighting System, I could handle that. For the first time, I used an idea from my DIT: we used a GoPro to see the weather coming. I had the GoPro beside the control monitor for the camera and I would say, "Oh, now here comes a dark cloud or open sky," or whatever, so we could fluidly adjust the incoming light to balance that.
'Happy End' studio shoot with greenscreenCredit: Sony Pictures Classics
A studio shoot on the set of 'Happy End'Credit: Christian Berger
And then the most difficult scene to shoot was the restaurant [one of the last scenes of the film], but that was shot in a studio. We could not shoot for three days in Calais with stable weather. The tide is eight meters, so sometimes you saw the beach and sometimes the water. You cannot shoot like that continuously. That was an 80-meter green screen and the whole restaurant was 15 by 15 meters; it was a really big.
NFS: That scene, in particular, looked incredible.
Berger: The scene in the restaurant? Do you think so? It wasn't too artificial, or something?
NFS: Not at all. The opposite. It made me feel as if I were in the room because I could see inside and outside with an even exposure. So, you mentioned the Cine Reflect Lighting System, which you invented. Can you tell me how you got the idea for that and how, exactly, it works?
Berger: I started with it the beginning of 2000 with The Pianist, but it was just secret tests. At that time, I was having a crisis. I wanted to [quit] my profession. I had had enough; every shoot was the same. If you saw any film, I could tell you the budget because I could see exactly what they used. Also, over-valuing the tools really unnerved me. That was never what excited me about cinema—to have big cranes and 10 trucks. To blow up your own importance. I wanted to go back to 16mm.
So, for Cine Reflect, the [inspiration] came from a problem with lighting. You can find a lot of beautiful equipment for lighting, but it's never thought as a system. In fact, one light source influences the next, like in nature.
Here [points to the garden in which we are sitting], my light source is that house and a little bit of sky. Most light comes as a reflector, which modulates our faces. And that was the answer. I thought, "I have to do that somehow. I do not want to put one light on top of another light and another light." Then, you need that 50 kilowatts for a small scene, and it's ridiculous.
Cine Reflect Lighting System outside the villa on the set of 'Happy End'Credit: Christian Berger
Berger: I got in touch with other professionals who work with light at least as much as cinematographers do. I learned a lot from architects who do light planning for industrial spaces. In terms of working with light, the film industry is, in a way, a small niche. And the ideas for lighting in the film industry are very [antiquated]. Most lighting [these days] feels like a violation... like, to rape the actors. Puff, boom! Nobody takes care of the eyes, the glare, the heat.
I wanted a lighting system that was much more organic. The Cine Reflect System is enormously energy-efficient, which was not the goal, but it was the effect. Depending on the situation, with the Cine Reflect System, your ratio is one to seven or one to 10 fewer lights. It's remarkable. I wanted to have more soft light. I love soft light, but everything you do conventionally with soft light looks like you used milk or yogurt on the whole scene—everything is smoothed, flat, and then you lose the modulation. In one place, you're soft, but you have a shadow, and then you need another light source. Then you have long shadows. You lose the orientation in the room.
"The film industry tries to sell you the newest technology, but don't believe in tools too much."
With the Cine Reflect System, we have about six different reflectors. The light sources are always the same; you just distribute it with different qualities. It's that simple.
[Referring to the photograph above] This was the villa. Here are the reflectors and the lamps, the light sources on the sidewalk. Close up seven meters. One lamp is not more than 1200 watts. That's the same as a vacuum cleaner. The reflectors define the quality of the light—soft, hard, what kind of diffusion. I can also make a stripe or I can make an oval area with the reflectors. You can combine them in different levels.
NFS: What did you shoot Happy End on, specifically?
Berger: It was an Alexa. And I love the Cooke lenses. That's it.
These days, the most important development concerning technique is that you have a level of control [that's better than ever]. I have an HD monitor. I can see the final result. I can really judge the light. It was never like that before.
I love to go live with the iris in a scene. For example, in the South of France [in Happy End], when the family wants to sell their old house and we wander through the house, I shot that with a Steadicam coming from the ground floor. In that scene, the iris never stops. It starts with 2.8 and a half. It goes up to 22 on the balcony. I can use the remote control, which is beautiful because I can make the iris do what the eye does. It, too, provides an organic feeling. With that technology, you can reproduce an adaptation from the eye.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about shooting The White Ribbon? That was one of the most beautifully shot films I've seen in this decade. You very much deserved the Oscar nomination.
Berger: It was a very difficult shoot. My relationship with Haneke was more stressed because he had so many different things going on and everything was against the rules. There was no main actor, no love story, it was black and white, no music, no ending. It was a lot of things where you would say, "Forget it. Nobody wants to see that." But suddenly there was hype for that film—much more than expected, in fact, for all of us. During production, you can always tell there's a scene here and there which worked really well, but you never know if it could work as a whole. And it was a long shoot. It was very difficult for me to keep my track or to stay on my rails. Respecting light was difficult. It was so abstract.
With Happy End, it was very different. It was clear: the girl, the grandfather, the mother, the different locations...it was a simpler story than The White Ribbon.
NFS: How did you deal with the challenges of lighting for black and white?
Berger: At that time, the digital technique was not good enough yet. It was in 2008, I think. So it was before the Alexa. At that time, we really relied on negative, and for black and white there was no negative anymore, so we used the very highly developed negatives in color and just took away the color. Once the negative is developed, you go in a scanner and then you have everything digital. So, that was the best way to do it at that time. Today, I could imagine shooting it digitally directly.
NFS: How else have you experimented with your philosophy of cinematography throughout your career?
Berger: It's always with the light. The framing is kind of self-evident. I'm too old to be a formalist with framing.
For a while, I studied human visual perception with scientists. I learned a lot about the brain: how an image is created in our brain, and the perception rules it follows. For example, a very simple rule is that you see first the brightest and then the sharpest thing in an image. You can't avoid it; our senses are built like that. But you can use it in cinematography. It creates rich possibilities. You can try to hide something in the frame, or you can direct or steal the attention from another part of the image in order to create a surprise a bit later.
Visual perception is quite simple, but reliable. It's free from cultural background. It's a physiological fact [upon which we] are built. It doesn't matter if you are living in the bush or in New York City. Visual perception is an international language, like music. You might hear Bach differently than somebody in the Bush, but you are touched nonetheless.
'The White Ribbon'
Berger: Visual perception is also interesting in terms of spatiality. You don't need an establishing shot to show, "Ah, there's the door. There's the window." You just need a wide angle to show that, and the wide angle actually makes the picture smaller—you have more information in the same format.
The brain is very, very well prepared and trained to replace missing information. Thematically, this is important. Your brain works with the story. You are not only sitting there and watching something; you are a participant because the brain has to fill in some missing links. Of course, you have to control it; otherwise, it's just missing information.
If you want to do this, it's good to use only one lens, 'cause then the audience knows the distance to the wall behind the character, and how far the door is on the side. If I use a wide angle once and then a long lens, you lose that orientation. If it's the same lens, you feel secure. If it's different, you feel alarmed, like something is wrong.
NFS: In Haneke's films, do you purposefully use different lenses or leave information out to make people feel alarmed in a scene?
Berger: It's a tool for us to use for artistic needs, yes. But you have to learn it. You have to know how long the eye needs to adapt from a dark tunnel into the bright sun. Then, you can use it as a tool. You could regulate the light so it is technically flat, but that's not dramatic. It's uninteresting.
NFS: There was a shot in this film where you went from very dark to very bright. It felt jarring and it worked for the scene. Engaging with the film as an active participant is, I think, what generally distinguishes European film from Hollywood films. I don't want to feel like I'm going to a movie to be handed information and absorb it mindlessly. I want to be putting a puzzle together. And it's so interesting to hear that you do that with cinematography.
Berger: Yeah. I mean, I owe due respect if I see a good action movie; it's a lot of very skillful work. I respect that. But it's kind of overwhelming dramatically. You never have the time to look for subtext or double meanings or metaphors. I want films to give the audience the opportunity to find your point of view, not to be [sedated] until you walk out of the theater into the light, like taking a drug.
Christian Berger at the control table on the set of 'Happy End' with Best Boy Manu Nevosad. The GoPro monitor enabled the camera team to observe the sky outside and react to its changes.Credit: Christian Berger
NFS: It does feel like that sometimes. I felt like that after I saw the filmMad Max: Fury Road.
Berger: Yeah, yeah. I spoke with the camera guy. They used 60 something cameras. 20 were ruined after the shoot. You know, cameras are tools.
NFS: Do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers?
Berger: Reduce. Be simpler. Don't look for answers where you have no questions. The film industry tries to sell you the newest technology, but don't believe in tools too much. Trust your own senses. Your camera is not only your eye; it's also your heart.
I do a lot of lectures, and in the questions, everyone is always following the publicity of the hardware industry, which says, "Now we can do this and that." Now, it's the hype with drones. They are gratis pictures, or bonus shots. It might make sense sometimes—it's a beautiful tool—but you have to have a good reason to use it. Before, we needed very expensive helicopters to shoot these shots. They were not allowed to fly here and there. But you can do it now. You just have to know what for and use it only if you really need it.
NFS: How have you liked Cannes so far?
Berger: I cannot enjoy it because I just arrived, and I have to go tomorrow morning. I arrived yesterday and we have our meetings and greetings tonight, and that's it. But I was here a few times in Cannes, and I can't stand the noise. Vanity is a very important factor here. With age, you don't want that anymore. It's that game, "I'm the most important one," and everybody runs around to see who screams louder.
NFS: To me, vanity seems antithetical to cinema. Cinema is supposed to make us look inside ourselves. It's supposed to be an inward-looking art form. Sometimes, like here, at Cannes, it can morph into an outward-looking art form.
Berger: I have an interesting quotation from a critic who wrote just after seeing the first short films from Auguste and Louis Lumière, those three-minute shots of a locomotive. The journalist wrote, "A new art is born because now you can catch the trembling of a leaf in the wind, and you can repeat it." That's, for me, cinema. Maybe we should think more about that. Cinema is catching a moment.