In its purest form, filmmaking is just photography. A camera captures a series of images and the human eye-brain complex creates the illusion of movement, and all of the narratives that go along with it. The first filmmakers often thought in terms of portraiture, or of landscapes, rather than telling stories. As the art form became more sophisticated, more elements were introduced: acting, special effects, editing, and screenwriting (eventually including recorded dialogue) became vital elements of the motion picture. But the camera remained essential to its definition, and the cinematographer’s technical skill and aesthetic view helps to define how we see the worlds created on film, even to this day.
In 1917, cinematography was already one of the more established positions on a film crew, and many of the people (mostly men) running cameras had long experience creating images on both still and moving film. The Russian Empire boasted some of the most creative photographers of the period, and Boris Zavelev was perhaps the best. He won a Century Award in 1915 for “Daydreams,” a movie he made in collaboration with director Evgeni Bauer, and this year he’s on the list again for “The Dying Swan,” the last movie Bauer was able to complete before he died. Here, he uses a mobile camera and dramatic lighting effects to establish a sense of doom and depth. In “A Man There Was” Julius Jaenzon demonstrates that the Swedish also had a sense of the somber and dark by 1917. He shows storms at night which probably would have just been black spaces if shot realistically on the film of the time, but which work through the lighting effects he applies. The video I saw of “Fear” had inferior visuals, but I could see that some interesting work was going on, especially in the dream sequences and scenes set in India. I don’t know the name of the cinematographer hired by Robert Wiene to bring these images to life. Finally, Maurice Tourneur’s camera team of Lucien Andriot and John van der Broek used his familiar lighting techniques to tell a story of a child who faces possible death due to the negligence of the adults in her life. Mary Pickford’s acting is only half of the reason that these scenes are so compelling: the rest is down to tight direction and excellent use of light and shadows. Mary’s dream sequences become darker and darker as she gets nearer to death, yet the audience can always make out the important details.
The nominees for best cinematography for 1917 are.:
And the winner is…
Julius Jaenzon for “A Man There Was!”
Honestly, I could almost have rolled a die to pick between the three good prints I had (“Fear” didn’t get a fair chance, I admit, because I couldn’t see a decent print). But, reflecting back on it, it seemed to me that the Swedish film was the one where the photography stood out throughout the movie, and not just in a key scene. Given that I had to choose one movie to give the award to, that seemed like the best criterion to use. “A Man There Was” is simply a beautiful film, which any fan of photography will enjoy from beginning to end.