The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Son of Saul, and the philosophy behind cinematography

Baradwaj Rangan

October 18, 2018 08:57:02 IST

One of my favourite anecdotes about cinematography comes from Francis Ford Coppola’s DVD commentary track of The Godfather. He says that they decided to be very “classical” about how the film was going to be shot, the camera always about four-and-a-half feet off the ground. “It never was looking up at anyone or looking down, unless [say] the guy was on the street and you had to look down.” This principle is violated in the scene where Don Corleone is shot after buying oranges (see clip below) -- there’s a high-angle shot that shows the Don falling, and the fruit scattering on the street. Gordon Willis, the cinematographer, was upset. He asked Coppola, “Whose point of view is it?” Coppola said, “I don’t know. It’s my point of view.”

Willis was a purist. If the camera showed something, it was through someone’s eyes – and who could be standing by the first-floor window in a nearby building, to justify that particular angle of the Don being shot? It’s a valid approach to cinematography, and every cinematographer has his/her philosophies. Karan Johar – for instance -- once told me what he learnt from Ravi K Chandran, that your trolley should move only when your character is moving or his or her thoughts are moving. But finally, it’s the director’s point of view that matters, and if everyone had been a purist like Willis (again, not a bad thing!), we’d never have had some of the low-angle shots in Citizen Kane. For who could have been crouching on the floor between the characters played by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in order to justify the shot that captures not just the looming men, but also the ceiling above them?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cinematography after watching László Nemes’s Sunset at the Venice Film Festival. (The film is set in Budapest, during the days leading to World War I.) The director uses the same technique that he did in his earlier (and first) film, Son of Saul, which is set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, during World War II -- it follows the protagonist’s (Saul) attempts to give a traditional Jewish burial to a boy who’s been gassed to death. There may be a panoramic shot or two – say, the out-of-focus visual of a massive pyre of bodies being burnt, or the film’s final image of a forest, as a boy runs (and disappears) into the greenery. Otherwise, the camera is merely inches from Saul: sometimes in front of him (so we are looking at him), sometimes to his side (so his face is in profile), but mostly behind him (so the back of his neck fills the screen).

It’s a revolutionary technique – and it feels like what Citizen Kane must have felt like in 1941. The effect (by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély) is claustrophobic, as though you are literally there, with Saul. (Gordon Willis would have a thing or two to say about the points of view of these shots.) In one harrowing stretch, as Saul swims across a river, we seem to be in the water with him, feeling his breath as he gasps for air. And due to the closeness of the camera, there is a constant sense of discovery. A wide shot may have given us information that Saul does not yet have (say, about the layout of the place, or an SS officer who lies in wait) – but now, we discover things with Saul. What he sees, we see— and only up to a distance. The rest is out of focus.

The result is the antithesis of a Schindler’s List, the micro instead of the macro. It’s a new grammar. Both Schindler’s List and Son of Saul are about a man with a mission, but the former plays like beautifully written fiction, while this is like gritty fact. Jessica Kiang, writing about Sunset in the British Film Institute (BFI) web site, complained that “[Nemes goes about] designing intricate exteriors of period Budapest, and then perversely consigning them to out-of-focus background noise as we trail around looking at the back of [the protagonist’s] neck (a lovely neck, but come on)...” But Nemes felt this approach [in Son of Saul] was suited to capture the vastness of the Holocaust, "because it takes place much more in the imagination than on screen. Whereas when you show frontally, you only reduce the scope of it...”

And how does this technique reflect the film’s philosophy? In a Film Comment interview, after the world premiere of Sunset, Nemes said, “Human history has a part that cannot really be understood, and that will remain a mystery. Not because of a lack of fact, but because it doesn’t seem logical...” Nemes says it’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to feel lost, confused (during the movie), the way the protagonist feels lost and confused (in the concentration camp, or in Budapest). When asked whether the claustrophobic technique fit better in Son of Saul’s concentration camp than in wide-open Budapest, Nemes said, “It doesn’t have to be justified by the narrative. It’s more about the philosophy of art. I am drawn to the subjective experience of art and the world...”

Kristin Thompson, in the blog Observations on Film Art, called Sunset thoroughly modern art cinema. Why “modern”? Because what Nemes (who worked as an assistant to Béla Tarr) is going for isn’t, say, neo-realism, which is how art cinema of an earlier era presented the unvarnished truth (“fiction” as opposed to “fact”). It’s not for all tastes. Nemes’s cinema works better as an experience, fascinating to immerse oneself into, but not necessarily satisfying drama (though Son of Saul is certainly more narratively satisfying than Sunset). But how amazing, that a hundred years after the birth of cinema, we are still finding new ways to use cinematography. Fifty years from now, Nemes’s cinema may have become “rulebook” enough to cease to surprise – like how first-timers watch Citizen Kane today and say, “I don’t see what the fuss is.” But this is the moment of birth, and we are privileged to witness it.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 10:47 AM