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The Cinematography of ‘Never Look Away’

For Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel, cinematography is the simple art of storytelling. Learn the skill, study the skill, and let emotion take control.
Never Look Away cinematography
Sony Pictures Classics
By  · Published on February 15th, 2019

Art as resistance is about as enticing a subject as anything else in 2019. Everywhere we turn there is a wall to meet our gaze. Such oppressive denial presents us with only three options: 1) Grab a hammer to smash it down. 2) Take a running start to scale the monstrosity. 3) Snatch up a paintbrush to unleash your rage upon it. We need rallying cries; we need others to show us that there is a fight to be had. It is less about winning and more about the action itself. Defiance is possible.

When evil seeps into a society, the damn thing must be brought into the light. To ignore the beast would be a vile act itself. This defiant function of artistic broadcasting is what initially attracted Caleb Deschanel to Never Look Away (a.k.a. Werk ohne Autor). Inspired by the life of German artist Gerhard Richter who transgressively blended photorealism with abstraction across a variety of mediums, the film celebrates rebellion through expression.

Set post-World War II East Germany, a young painter (Tom Schilling) battles Hitler’s leftover notion that art only holds validity in a representational form. Finding no soul in replicating everyday images, the artist bucks convention by mining emotion through abstraction. During this process of self-discovery, he meets and descends deeply into a passionate love affair with a fashion student (Paula Beer). Unbeknownst to them both, her father (Sebastian Koch) is the Nazi gynecologist that condemned the painter’s schizophrenic aunt to a death sentence.

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Deschanel was brought on board as a cinematographer well before there was even a screenplay. During the eight years that passed between his last film and this one, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark spent much of that time interviewing Gerhard Richter. He wanted his film to radiate with the vibrancy of Richter’s work, and he turned to his recent friendship with Deschanel to achieve that goal. While the two filmmakers had never worked before, they had found themselves on numerous Academy committees and their bond formed quickly. Henckel von Donnersmark insisted that no one else could bring this film before a camera.

Even without a script, the enthusiastic confrontational art of Gerhard Richter sparked a desire in Deschanel. When facing political oppression, every artist wants to believe in the weaponization of their craft. Here was an opportunity to champion the power of the eye as well as the heart in which the image is filtered. Never Look Away is one giant spotlight on the darkness we freely welcome into our community.

While attending Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematographers panel, Deschanel explained the poisonous normalcy of evil witnessed in the film, “You don’t expose evil in an obvious way as evil. It sort of lurks underneath things in a way. The evil comes out of the characters in the way they behave, and that was the core of what the film is about.” To capture that nefarious nature, Daschenel was not interested in leaning into shadow or any other obvious signifying tricks. He found his inspiration in the work of Richter.

Gerhard Richter is a painter obsessed with capturing “The Blur.” A photograph traps an exact duplication of an image, and Richter is possessed by the idea of replicating that process on canvas. The object is everything, whether it’s a toilet-roll holder, a person, or a curtain, and “the blur” effect that he drapes on top of the photorealistic presentation is a distortion of the image that implies a reality to his oils. In defacing truth, he finds the truth. This is an affront to Adolph Hitler’s two-dimensional thinking, and would certainly be deemed degenerate by the Third Reich.

Translating Richter’s art and philosophy into a third medium of cinema presented plenty of challenges, and the task could have bogged the production down in several more years of debate. Sometimes, however, one must simply trust in a feeling. In speaking to American Cinematographer, Deschanel discussed the gut impulse that drives his framing, “Somehow it felt more appropriate, more old-fashioned, to frame in 1.85, and Florian and I liked that aspect ratio for a lot of our locations, too. I sort of go by instinct and emotions on these things, and this didn’t seem like a movie that wanted to be widescreen. It’s an intimate story.”

Both the director and cinematographer wanted to root this vision in the era, and contemporary digital techniques seemed antithetical to what Deschanel hoped to achieve in Never Look Away. How can an ARRI Alexa contain the vibrancy of Richter’s work let alone the actuality of 1940s East Germany? Such tried-and-true notions must contend with the budgetary demands of producers and the fact of dwindling craftsman. “There are no more professional film labs in all of Germany; when we started prep, the nearest lab was in Vienna,” says Deschanel. “After looking at the tests, Florian and I were still convinced we should shoot on film, and a couple of weeks later, we called the lab in Vienna to let them know we’d be sending more tests, and they said, ‘Don’t bother, we just went out of business.’ That sealed the deal, so we went with the Alexa.”

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Grain then became a great concern in relaying historical authenticity. Working with the Digital Intermediate (DI), “I added grain, using more earlier in the story and progressing to finer grain as we went along.” During this process, Deschanel rediscovered his fervor for the material, finding that his interpretation of scenes on set was not necessarily the same when he watched them weeks/months later. He says, “I sometimes find the emotion I experience watching a finished scene is slightly different from the emotion I was thinking about when I shot it.”

This means that Deschanel often doesn’t put his finishing touch on a film until he’s seen the whole thing strung together in one cut. During the edit, as scenes jumble around the timeline, their effect changes and may require correction. A trick that would have been much more complicated if the film was shot traditionally.

“I’m not one who believes in timing the film as I go along because how I finally orchestrate the look depends on how the film is put together,” explains Deschanel. “I don’t believe you can time each scene separately and then put the picture together and have it work. The DI gives you a lot of flexibility to move colors around and create a symphony that goes from one color to another – warm to cool, for instance.”

Deschanel sees himself as just another storyteller on set. In defining his role to Deadline, he described cinematography as a job that “distills the visual images down to certain aspects of a story. There’s lighting and camera moves, whether a close-up of an actor that enhances performances or helps express emotion of that story.” The best thing a craftsman can do is study and work his way to mastery over the technicalities, then let it all slip away so the humanity can take over. “It’s all part of what I do,” he says. Simple enough.

Pushing him further to explain the magic behind the craft, Deschanel looks to another passionate-bordering-on-fanatic filmmaker. Hidden within Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the DP sees the perfect metaphor for his gig. “Jack Nicholson is writing his novel, and then his wife comes up and sees what he’s writing over and over again, and it’s ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,'” he describes possibly the most iconic moment of the entire film. “There it is, a perfect way to describe what visual images do. You find the visual equivalent of expressing the insanity or joy or emotions of these characters.”

Never Look Away marks the sixth time Deschanel has received a nomination for an Academy Award, but despite honored work on The Right Stuff and The Natural, the cinematographer only donned the tux to watch others walk away with the prize. While it’s impossible not to deny excitement at finally scoring a possible win, Deschanel is simply shocked at the nomination. Chatting over the phone with the Boston Herald, he expressed total adulation over the recognition, “This nomination was really unexpected and wonderful because I thought nobody had seen it. The other foreign film entries [Roma and Cold War] spent lots of money, and they hardly spent any money on this movie.” As such, Never Look Away is the underdog of the night, but if cinema has taught us anything, it’s that we should never count out the underdog.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)