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Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Ballhaus Talks ‘The Book Thief’

Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Ballhaus Talks 'The Book Thief'

“The Book Thief” might be flying under the Oscar radar, but it’s still a gentle gem worth considering. True, it’s old-fashioned and sentimental while contemplating the vicarious power of storytelling. But it’s a unique Holocaust story told from a child’s point of view as well as Death’s (adapted from the best-seller by Markus Zusak). And that’s what attracted DP Florian Ballhaus, best known for comedy (“The Devil Wears Prada”), and the son of the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who’s worked with both Fassbinder and Scorsese).

“I enjoyed how it dealt with innocence and guilt through the eyes of children and their everyday lives,” Ballhaus says. “In a way it legitimizes the simplicity or the sense of brutality that is shown from a kid’s point of view in that world.”

Directed by Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) with attention to innocence, Ballhaus insists that it was important not to be confined to one look. They didn’t want period bleak so they gave it a broad visual palette that stayed true to the emotional temperature of each scene. “That meant different point of views, going from Death [voiced by the commanding yet seductive Roger Allam] to Leisel [played by Sophie Nelisse] and we had to differentiate what that was going to be.” 

But the emphasis, of course, is on Liesel, which meant it had to have an immediacy to its camera placement and movement. And for Death, the shots became more epic and sweeping. “We allowed ourselves to have that bit of distance that the Death voice-over would grant you rather than being as big and epic as we could. To me, it’s always more interesting to analyze your tools and your choices with every scene. For period, I have a fear of the monotony of just one look. Some moments are intimate and dark and others are more cheerful with lots of movement.” 

Made for $20 million, they shot at Studio Babelsberg in Berlin but built the quaint Himmel (“heaven”) Street. Ballhaus considered shooting on film in keeping with the period but instead opted for digital. “There’s a lot to be said for the Alexa, given the high ISO and the speed and being able to do 20-minute takes. And working with a kid, we didn’t know how good she was going to be. But she turned out to be absolutely spot-on and an acting machine. 

“We did some testing and added some grain in the final grade, which was the right way to go. It gave us enough of that filmic texture that we wanted and we embraced it. We thought about anamorphic lenses vs. spherical lenses, and anamorphic was too much of a post-war look to me, more associated with ’60s and ’70s movies. I adore that look but not for this. I wanted something more authentic shooting digital and I went with the Leica primes. We shot a lot of the movie wide open where the focus falls off and it’s not so sharp and penetrates the frame at all times.”

However, the use of widescreen was imperative because it allowed them to play with comfort and claustrophobia. After Liesel is separated from her family at the outset, she lives with Hans and Rosa Hubermann (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Much of the movie takes place in their home, particularly in the basement, where Hans teaches Liesel how to read, and where they hide a Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer).

“The basement was a key location: it’s a joyous place where they have a snow fight and celebrate Christmas. And it’s a scary place when a Nazi officer inspects it. So much of the movie is spent trapped in doors, that it was important to open it up every now and then, especially with the town. This is where they can be kids, can be free and have fun until the horrible events of the world catches up to them.”

If the Buergemeister library is a dreamlike refuge, then the book burning is a nightmare. Ballhaus says it was incredibly traumatic as a post-war German to be in Berlin and witness 400 extras shouting “Sieg Heil.” Nothing makes your skin crawl quite like that. Likewise, shooting Kristallnacht was intense as well.

“We thought about doing it from Death’s point of view, but Brian and I decided we couldn’t do that. It would’ve been too graceful and too beautiful. Ultimately, we had to experience the pain of it. It was important to be honest to what was happening. Again, it was always about point of view. Are we in it or out of it?”

But Ballhaus’ visual function is to virtually go unnoticed in support of Liesel’s extraordinary escape through the love of words.

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