Friday, January 22, 2010

Mark Hope-Jones: Anarchy in the BRD

Anarchy in the BRD: The Baader Meinhof Complex, shot by Rainer Kalusmann, BVK, details the rise and fall of a German terrorist group.
by Mark Hope-Jones
American Cinematographer

In the summer of 1967, during protests against the Shah of Iran’s state visit to West Berlin, an unarmed student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed by a plainclothes policeman. Ohnesorg’s killing sent shock waves through German society, crystallizing the anger of a youth movement that viewed America’s presence in Vietnam as imperialism and its own government as authoritarian. The Baader Meinhof Complex charts the 10 tumultuous years that followed, as student protests paved the way to organized domestic terrorism. A particularly single-minded group of extremists, led by Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, founded the Red Army Faction to wage war on the state. As the group’s attacks intensified, the West German police were forced to modernize in order to make arrests that provoked new kidnappings and killings. Despite the arrest of several key Red Brigade members, the violence escalated, eventually culminating in the bloody “German Autumn” of 1977.

Although he has worked predominantly in Germany throughout his 28-year career, cinematographer Rainer Klausmann, BVK is Swiss and has always lived in Zurich, so the real events depicted in the film had a limited impact on him as a young man. “I got married in 1970, and I was more interested in my new wife than in political affairs!” he says. “I knew the story a bit from newspapers and television, but it wasn’t really part of me; I was never a student and I wasn’t in Germany at the time.”

Instead of studying film at college, Klausmann learned his skills on the job in the early 1980s. “I was an assistant in Switzerland with [cinematographer] Hans Liechti and then Thomas Mauch, a German director of photography,” he explains. “I was second camera on Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo [1982] with Mauch and then started out on my own. Eventually I was working with directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel and Fatih Akin; the scripts got better and the work got better.”

In 2004, Klausmann shot Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, an Academy Award-nominated study of Hitler’s final days in his bunker beneath war-torn Berlin, for German producer Bernd Eichinger. When Eichinger took on The Baader Meinhof Complex, he coaxed director Uli Edel, an old friend from film school, back to Germany from a successful television career in the States. Neither man had any doubt that Klausmann was the man they wanted behind the camera: “I’ve known Rainer for 20 years, and I’ve always followed his work, although we never had an opportunity to do anything together,” says Edel. “When this movie came along, I knew he would be perfect.”

Though Klausmann had been little affected by the events of the time, he was sensitive to the fact that Edel felt a great emotional connection with the story, having lived through it at close quarters as a student in Germany. “Finding a visual approach to the film was easy because to my mind, you can’t play around with history — you have to go for the facts,” says Klausmann. “Uli didn’t want to present his own vision of that era; he wanted to tell the real stories."

Many of the events from those difficult years, when West Germany was still a relatively young democracy, are so well known that to stray too far from reality would have alienated the film’s domestic audience. “The shooting of Rudi Dutschke [a student activist who narrowly survived an attempt on his life in 1968] was comparable [in cultural impact] to the assassination of John F. Kennedy,” says Edel. “I know exactly where I was when I heard the news. Everybody in Germany does, so you cannot change these things too much.”

The most iconic moments of the story were therefore re-created on set with scrupulous attention to detail; they serve as visual anchor points, punctuating a chronological narrative that links them all together. “Those images were burned into the consciousness of a generation,” says Edel. “The image of a woman leaning over the dying Ohnesorg went around the world, so we wanted to get as close as possible to the reality of that. Most German people remember Ohnesorg and Dutschke without necessarily knowing how they were connected; what I tried to do was to give those 10 years a narrative that lets you understand how it all started and where it went.”

Klausmann’s cinematographic approach was principally dictated by the film’s fast-paced montage structure and the decision to cut original television footage in with the action throughout. “We watched a lot of real footage and there were long discussions about what [clips] to use,” he says. “The color matching of the film was influenced by what we used, because our movie had to fit with the real stuff; we avoided strong reds, blues or greens and we desaturated the image in the DI. Otherwise, it would have looked like two different movies, and that’s not good.”

For the same reason, Klausmann’s camerawork was informed by a newsgathering style that would complement the spontaneous energy of the archival material. “The idea was to make the whole film in this documentary style so it matched the original footage,” says Edel. “I gave the actors a lot of freedom, especially in the bigger scenes with all the extras. It was very important that we could really follow the action; we did not want to create the action through cuts. That’s why there were so many Steadicam and handheld shots.”

This approach suited Klaus-mann well: “Uli knows that I like to handhold the camera,” he says. “The actors like it, too, because they can do what they want and it’s my problem to follow them! I don’t like too much technical stuff, [like] using a lot of cranes and modern gear; I prefer to do it the way I think it was, to make it more real. If you’re nearer to reality, you’re nearer to the story and it’s more likely to work. I never used filters on the film; it was just about the available light and using what was there.”

Klausmann opted to shoot with Arricam Studios and Lites and Arri Master Primes. “I first used the Master Primes when they gave me two or three to try on The Invasion [2007],” he says. “I really liked them then, and I think they’re still the best lenses available. Their speed is good, but mainly I like the way they match with colors, and they’re not as hard as the previous [Zeiss] Superspeeds. To me, they’re perfect.”

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