Berlinale 2014: Cinema, art of light and shadow

From Japan to Germany and America, ideas in movie lighting have long travelled on the wind. A new retrospective in Berlin and New York follows their course.

Daniel Fairfax

Web exclusive

Flesh and the Devil (1926): cinematography by William H. Daniels

Flesh and the Devil (1926): cinematography by William H. Daniels

In the early 1930s, French art historian Élie Faure jolted prevailing aesthetic hierarchies by asserting that the lighting in Fred Niblo’s 1920 Fairbanks-caper The Mark of Zorro possessed “supernatural” affinities to the work of Velazquez, Goya and Manet. At the same time, the modernist author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki made similar claims about Japanese cinema in his book In Praise of Shadows.

This year, Berlinale audiences were given the chance to verify such declarations in the 34-film retrospective Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting Styles 1915-1950, co-curated by the Deutsche Kinemathek and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In his speech opening the retrospective, Kinemathek head Rainer Rother noted that the inspiration for this programme came from University of Oregon academic Daisuke Miyao, whose recent book Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema explored the myriad ways in which Japanese, German and American lighting styles influenced each other in the silent and early-talkie era.

That Night’s Wife (1930): cinematography by Hideo Mohara

That Night’s Wife (1930): cinematography by Hideo Mohara

The subtle nature of cinematic lighting has often led to its being overlooked in historical overviews of the cinema in favour of more conspicuous formal techniques such as editing and mise en scène. And yet, as Miyao demonstrates, and as the Berlinale programme further proves by adding films from France and Denmark to its slate, the evolution of lighting styles in the first half of the 20th century was a truly global affair, with trends and technical developments swiftly roaming from nation to nation, a phenomenon often aided by the migration of filmmakers and technicians.

The 1920s, in particular, seemed to be a worldwide battleground between contrasting approaches to (and philosophies behind) lighting. At the same time as the expressionist techniques pioneered by German filmmakers – with their deeply-drawn shadows, chiaroscuro effects and profusions of fog – gained international prominence, others took to working in a more naturalistic vein. Yet films such as Günter Lamprecht’s Unter der Laterne (Under the Lantern, 1928), Yasujiro Ozu’s Sono yo no tsuma (That Night’s Wife, 1930) and Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) amply showed that a concern for social realism could fruitfully co-exist with a taste for the low-key lighting of expressionism.

Rashomon (1950): cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Rashomon (1950): cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

This year’s retrospective provided two types of experiences for the viewer. Universally recognised masterpieces, including Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Rashomon, Citizen Kane and Stagecoach, could be re-watched with a particular eye for their use of lighting effects. The contributions to these films by cameramen of the ilk of Gregg Toland, Karl Freund and Kazuo Miyagawa could be appraised, and their work across a range of films and genres compared with each other.

Alternatively, the hardened cinephile could strike out for more uncharted terrain, with previously obscure works gaining welcome exposure. Particularly strong, in this respect, was the selection of a number of Japanese films whose relative anonymity in the West belies their visual prowess. Numbering among the highlights here was Sadao Yamanaka’s Ninjo kamifusen (Humanity and Paper Balloon, 1937), a lugubrious period-film set in the 18th century, focussing on the destitute pawnbroker Unno’s futile efforts at resisting a tyrannical samurai’s overtures towards his daughter.

Ninjo kamifusen (Humanity and Paper Balloon, 1937): cinematography by Akira Mimura

Ninjo kamifusen (Humanity and Paper Balloon, 1937): cinematography by Akira Mimura

Henry Kotani’s silent-era Nasake no hikari (Light of Compassion, 1926), meanwhile, treads a fine-line between unflinching realism and sentimentalism in its depiction of the school boy Junichi’s shame at his mother’s poverty. Strangely, for a film commissioned by the ministry of education, redemption comes for Junichi not through the efforts of enlightened social policy, but in the form of a friend’s benevolent father, who steps in as a deus ex machina to financially provide for the boy’s continued education.

At the opposite end of the genre-spectrum, the key source of fascination in Kajiro Yamamoto’s fascist propaganda work Hawai-mare-oki kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay, 1942) lay in its startling special effects sequences depicting the onset of the war in the Pacific. As legend has it, they were so convincing that footage from the film was subsequently re-used in Allied newsreels.

Hawai-mare-oki kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay, 1942): cinematography by Akira Mimura

Hawai-mare-oki kaisen (The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay, 1942): cinematography by Akira Mimura

More generally, the strength of this year’s retrospective was the reliably high quality of its offerings. If anything, the films shown offered such a diversity of aesthetic riches that it was often difficult to maintain a focus on the ways in which they were lit. Who could ignore the frenetic bouts of experimental montage in Yeinosuke Kinagasa’s Jujiro (Crossways, 1928), the monumental sets of Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928) or the kinetic verve of Douglas Fairbanks’ D’Artagnan in Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask (1929)?

When John Gilbert and Greta Garbo meet in a dark garden in Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926, pictured at top), we may admire the use of ‘Rembrandt lighting’ as their faces are illuminated by the wan, flickering light of a matchstick, but we are surely far more engrossed by the palpable chemistry of the two leads. The cinema is the art of light and shadow, but it is also so much more than this.

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