Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From PORT OF SHADOWS to WINGS OF DESIRE: The Incredible Career of Cinematography Legend Henri Alekan

The remarkable, dreamlike black-and-white look of WINGS OF DESIRE (which screens twice this weekend) seems to exist outside of time. There's a reason for this. Because his regular cinematographer Robby Muller was otherwise occupied shooting BARFLY, Wenders called again on the old hand Henri Alekan, with whom he had worked on THE STATE OF THINGS in 1982.

At the time of making WINGS OF DESIRE, Alekan (born on this date in 1909) was 78 years old and one of the known masters of light in the world. Chosen by Eugen Schüfftan (who counted Gance's NAPOLEON and Lang's METROPOLIS among his piddling credits) as his camera operator, Alekan assisted the master on Marcel Carné's PORT OF SHADOWS and continued work in this vein until the war, when he joined the French Resistance and fought bravely against Hitler and his Vichy minions, even escaping from a Nazi P.O.W. camp to continue the fight.

in 1946 Alekan shot the remarkable BATTLE OF THE RAILS, which showed the world for the first time what life under the Nazi occupation had been like. Many of the cast and crew members of the film had been Alekan's comrades in the Resistance.

His next feature was Jean Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) which I believe we are safe in calling one of the most magical achievements in cinematography. His subsequent - very busy - career includes many high points - Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953), Jules Dassin's fine heist movie TOPKAPI (1964),  the bizarre, but beautifully-shot, samurai western RED SUN (1971), Raul Ruiz' surreal 1982 film ON TOP OF THE WHALE, and Alain Robbe-Grillet's still-underrated 1983 erotic drama LA BELLE CAPTIVE, among many, many others. But it is Wenders' 1987 WINGS OF DESIRE that best calls upon Alekan's special genius for computing the equation of light and shadow (and mirrors, as it turns out) that results in visual magic.

Here's a wide-ranging 1999 interview with Alekan in which he discusses a lot of his career high points. A sample:
Interviewer: I know that you prefer to create effects in the camera rather than turning over to the laboratory the production of effects. I imagine that there are several factors in play in this preference - such as the challenge for you, and the viewer experiencing a greater authenticity in an effect produced in the camera.
Alekan: I think perhaps the word authentic isn't fully appropriate. Maybe it's the fact that the tricks done in the camera are tricks carried out by a person. While tricks done in the laboratory - though obviously also carried out by a person - involve a good bit of science. And there is a difference between scientific, rational thought and artistic, emotional thought. I just don't believe that electronic effects can make the public experience the same communication you can achieve with a trick that is manually executed. The proof is that in the theater, the tricks are almost always done manually. And I think we fully accept the little risks, even the imperfections, that can suddenly turn up in a theatrical trick effect. 
Cinematic effects are much more advanced, it's true. The public shouldn't realize that we are using an effect. But they have to feel the same emotion as the person who has created the effect. Then you are dealing with people, with grips, gaffers, cameramen, who play with the effect like musicians in an orchestra. A recorded concert doesn't move me in the same way as a concert experienced in a theater and in the presence of the musicians. And I think that trick effects in the cinema work the same way.

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