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How Christian Berger Shot the Twin Horrors of Hungary’s ‘The Notebook’ in CinemaScope

How Christian Berger Shot the Twin Horrors of Hungary's 'The Notebook' in CinemaScope

Janos Szasz’s “The Notebook,” last year’s foreign Oscar film entry from Hungary, explores the dark side of inseparability among innocent yet cruel twin boys. And DP Christian Berger (“The White Ribbon”), who is now busy prepping Angelina Jolie’s next directorial effort, “By the Sea,” which will co-star the newly married Jolie and Brad Pitt, was immediately drawn to the brutal topic.

“I was right away fascinated by the novel from Agota Christof and her stringent and radical story about the eternal fight between barbarism and civilization, and how thin the skin is,” recalls the Austrian Berger, who is accustomed to dealing with this eternal fight through his longtime collaboration with director Michael Haneke.

“Janos wanted to change his style of filming with that project and I think that was one of his reason’s to ask me for that collaboration. And it was a collaboration in the best way. How he was directing the twins was really great.”

As 13-year-old twin siblings (real life twin brothers Andras and Laszlo Gyemant) endure the harshness of WWII in a village on the Hungarian-German border, they ensure their survival by completely desensitizing themselves while documenting every cruel experience in a notebook left to them by their father.

Szasz wanted to convey a single consciousness, a single soul with the brothers, with the worst fear being their separation. This served as an inspiration to Berger “because after a few rehearsals we could see that the twins seemed so similar at the first sight, but if they had their emotional scenes, they looked suddenly very different and individual. By the way, that was the most important reason to choose CinemaScope to keep the twins always together in the frame, except when they are separated.”

Despite the Grimm-like fairy tale connotations of “The Notebook,” the look is exquisite, from the inviting, Vermeer-like interiors to the green forest to the white snow. “The main location, the grandmother’s farm, was in Hungary, south from Budapest, and the conditions were extremely poor, so the Vermeer-like interiors came naturally because of small windows in low rooms and the colors.

“I don’t agree [that they become completely evil], because they try to do good, following The Bible and what their parents told them. But as there is nothing around with those values, they become monsters in all innocence. For me, that makes the story emotionally so strong.”

Berger shot digitally, using the Arri Alexa with Cooke lenses with the Cine Reflect Lighting System that he developed with Christian Bartenbach. This simplifies the lighting process whether shooting into strong light sources or dealing with shadows and darkness. He also likes to use natural light sources such as candles and torches.

A seductive scene with the maid and the twins in a bath and and a few of the more dramatic night scenes proved the most challenging and satisfying. “I hope[d] I could create the right atmosphere for the whole movie and help the actors and the director to achieve what they wanted.”

As for working with Jolie, whose biopic “Unbroken” (December 25), about the late World War II hero and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, is a prime Oscar contender, Berger had little to say about the “experimental romance”: “I only can say she is very nice to work with; very open, curious and straight emotional. It’s very challenging and exciting.”

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