The Book Thief: Inside DP Florian Ballhaus’ Vision

MovieMaker‘s editor’s weekend pick is The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival. Based on Markus Zusak’s beloved New York Times best-selling novel by the same name, the film details the story of a young girl who changes the lives of everyone around her as she is sent to live with foster parents in Germany during World War II. Florian Ballhaus, the film’s cinematographer, writes about creating the film, and the many nations that helped in the process. This article appears in our Fall 2013 issue, hitting stands any day now!

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A Childhood the Stuff of Fiction

My imagination was captivated from the moment I first opened The Book Thief. I couldn’t stop thinking about it — not only because it was an excellent script and clearly had enticing visual possibilities, but because it was a film that spoke directly to my background and tastes. It offered the perfect opportunity to combine my European and American moviemaking sensibilities.

The Book Thief offers a fresh vision of the much-filmed Second World War. A young girl, Liesel Meminger, is sent to live with a working-class family in a typical German town. Her foster family is unsophisticated and apolitical, loyal only to their common sense and inherent kindness. This leads them to care not only for Liesel, but also to risk their lives by hiding the Jewish son of a good friend.

The script was a highly original story set in familiar territory for me, since my German father was the same age as Liesel when he lived through the war. I grew up in Germany in the ’60s and ’70s and spent much of childhood on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film sets. My father, Michael Ballhaus, was his regular cinematographer for many years. On one occasion Fassbinder, often short of funds, even used our house as his main location. At a very young age, the line between movies and real life became pleasantly blurred for me, and I enjoyed seeing the world through the lens of a camera. I was 16 years old when I worked with my father on his first American movie: Baby It’s You, directed by John Sayles. Once I finished high school, I joined my family in America and spent the next decade working my way up the ranks from second camera assistant to first and, finally, to operator, with directors such as Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Redford.

DF-00696 - Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) reads to Max (Ben Schnetzer), who?s hiding in her home.

The Magic of Low Budgets

I had been an operator for three years when I unexpectedly received an offer to shoot a low-budget movie in Germany. I had never worked as a professional in Europe. It turned out to be far more familiar and even more exciting than I had anticipated. After my larger American films, I was surprised by my instant enthusiasm for shooting this independent, lower-budget movie. It was inspiring to see how financial limitations led to innovative solutions in ways I hadn’t experienced before. On the flip side, the knowledge and expertise I gained on professional studio films allowed me to maximize the potential of every shooting day. I spent several years in Berlin shooting as many films as possible, and I became increasingly eager to explore opportunities to merge these two disparate approaches to filmmaking—the American and the European, the extravagant and the modest.

On larger films, it is often necessary to be ready for any possible change of approach or idea. On a lower budget film, the director, director of photography and the crew must work closely together so that everything necessary is available, but very little is wasted. These elements include special equipment, additional crew or simply scheduling priority. The precise, economical planning requires a matter of trust. If communication is open between all the levels of creative and technical people, one can tread very close to the line without sacrificing creativity. In fact, this kind of advance planning often forces a vision to come into focus with greater clarity.

One must also be open to happy accidents. When the sun is setting, or a cast member only has one more hour before they have to go, the energy and speed of a small and committed crew works wonders, especially when everyone feels they are an integral part of the movie. There is a special kind of camaraderie on films made by smaller crews, and as long as the trust and respect is fostered from the producer to the production assistant, miracles can occur.

My first opportunity to shoot an American film in Berlin occurred when Alan Rudolph hired me for his film, Investigating Sex. But it was with director Robert Schwentke that I had my first chance to blend the European and American approaches on a large Hollywood film: Flightplan. Robert and I were both eager to combine a raw, low-budget intensity with studio-budget perfectionism. Our enthusiasm was infectious, spreading to the great crew and the amazing Jodie Foster. Since then, I’=ve shot many large American films, but I am most inspired by projects that are fueled by the passionate devotion of producers and directors. This is often, though not always, the province of independent films, so I have spent the last few years seeking them out.

DF-03849_CROP - Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) meets her new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson).

Talent All Over the Map

Thanks to the drive and persistence of its American producers, Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato, The Book Thief finally received a green light from Fox 2000 in December of 2012. It was being produced by an American studio, shooting in my hometown of Berlin, and I was to work with a British director, Brian Percival, and an entirely European crew. The actors were from all over the world, including Geoffrey Rush from Australia and Emily Watson from England.

On the first day, I was thrilled to be walking onto a German movie set with Brian and his British assistant director, Phil Booth; a German operator, Florian Emmerich; two British camera assistants; and a German gaffer, Janosch Voss. If there was any doubt in my mind that I was in a place that was especially right for me, I was reminded of it every time someone called out my name—since there were three other Florians in principle positions! If someone asked for one of us, they always received four answers! I felt that my unusual journey through the film business had utterly, almost uncannily, prepared me for this moment.

The challenge was an extension of my first attempts with Rudolph and Schwentke to blend European and American film-making styles and attitudes. The Book Thief is a film that was, by studio standards, quite ambitious, given its modest budget. But in contrast to most European films, especially German films, the budget was unusually large. My European crew was enthusiastic about the stylistic and technical opportunities provided by working on a large movie. In turn, they consistently amazed us with their flexibility and skill. Every single day was a learning experience on the highest possible level.

There is no doubt that The Book Thief benefitted greatly from the combination of American, British, Australian, and German influences. The combustive power was as evident behind-the-scenes as it is in the on-screen presence of its diverse group of actors. This potent mixture of nationalities plays an important role in the film’s universal appeal. I hope to keep this vibrant combination, for me both professional and personal, alive in every project that comes my way. The Book Thief was an opportunity to make this dream a reality. MM

The Book Thief opened in limited release November 8, 2013, courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

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