Surfing on Incidents: A Conversation with Peter Zeitlinger

The long-time cinematographer for Werner Herzog discusses his philosophy & creative process, working with Herzog, and "Queen of the Desert."
Michael Guarneri

“When I was a kid, I used to draw directly on the film frames and do animations, so I could use the expensive film much less, and be busy longer with it. The first thing I learned about filmmaking is that when you shoot in real time, all the film is gone so quickly, and you have to buy more...,” cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger told me during an informal chat we had in the lobby of his hotel, a couple of days before his “Measuring the Space” masterclass in the Berlinale Talents program during the Berlin International Film Festival.

Many years have passed since Zeitlinger's first, no-budget experiments with the medium of cinema: now he is one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the film business, and Werner Herzog's right-hand man since his TV documentary Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995).

Using the Berlinale Competition entry Queen of the Desert (2015) as a case study, the interview that follows is an attempt to shed light on Zeitlinger's profession, and on the creative process behind Herzog's movies. 

NOTEBOOK: How would you describe your job to someone who is not in the film business?

PETER ZEITLINGER: I am a cinematographer. The cinematographer creates the images you see on the screen. I also operate the camera myself, moving it around during the shots, setting the focus, and so on. As almost all the creative people in the film business, I work on a freelance basis. That is to say, directors or producers contact me because they saw what I did in this or that previous project and, usually, they ask me to do the same in their movie, which is a thing I find very problematic, since I always seek a new vision, new ways to transform or translate a story into moving images.

NOTEBOOK: For the past 20 years you have been working with film director Werner Herzog. Given your creative restlessness, what keeps you interested in working with him?

ZEITLINGER: I have been introduced to Werner in the early nineties by my friend Ulrich Seidl, an Austrian director with whom I worked on Loss Is to Be Expected (1992), The Last Real Men (1994), Pictures at an Exhibition (1996) and Animal Love (1996).

Werner is a director who thinks in terms of an inner vision. What he does is setting the general mood, the atmosphere of the film: he creates a scenery by bringing together human beings, animals and whatever else he needs for the story into a space of his choice. He doesn't give “directions” in the traditional sense. He does not tell actors and extras how to create their characters. He simply talks about the things that move him, what is interesting to him and why he is doing the movie, so that a deeper understanding is spread around the set.

As far as my job is concerned, Werner and I do not talk much. Actually, he does not talk to me about the film at all. [Laughter] He just tells me: “Read the script, and then you will know what we will do”. This is because, as a matter of principle, he never discusses aesthetics and how a film should look. These things are so boring for him, he really hates them. So, when we are shooting, he never tells me “Do a close-up, do a long shot, frame this or that, move the camera here and there.” He gives me the freedom to navigate through the scenery he created and capture what I think is important. This freedom is a little frightening but, ultimately, it is what I like most. It is what keeps me interested in working with Werner after all these years.

NOTEBOOK: How far can you push your freedom?

ZEITLINGER: Werner is the boss, no questions about it. He is not a “hired director,” no matter what he sometimes says. He is always the co-producer of his films, so every big decision goes through his head as well. That said, I decide 90% of framing and camera movement. Werner intervenes only when he gets the feeling that I am doing something too “artistic.” If he sees too much sophistication in the shot, he destroys it: not only he hates to talk about aesthetics, he also hates aesthetics in films, so whatever “formal elegance” you might see in his movies has been sneaked in against his will, or it just somehow happened in front of the camera.

NOTEBOOK: 90% is a lot!

ZEITLINGER: You must understand that any framing will always be too small for Werner. He simply does not think in “little images.” For instance, he is not a director who can imagine a montage like “I see this face, then I see this foot, then I see this hand, then I see the sky.” He does not want to break a scene into pieces, single shots that will be later assembled in the editing room to create the impression of a space-time continuum. In his mind, he sees the bigger picture, the scene as a whole: that is why he doesn't like to cut. However, the imago, “the image of the whole,” can never be fully achieved in cinema. So my job is to “cut out” a portion of the scenery Werner created in order to present the substance of his vision on the screen. I would say that our work as filmmakers has a lot to do with poetry: you see, in German the word “poetry” [dichtung] comes from the verb “dichten,” which means “to compress.” There is some truth in etymology, sometimes.

NOTEBOOK: I think it was Roman Jakobson who wrote that cinema is inherently metonymic, because it can only show a part for the whole. Can you give me a concrete example of your work of compression?

ZEITLINGER: The crowd scene of the marketplace in Queen of the Desert might be a good example. Firstly, the space: the scene was shot on location, in a historical place in Morocco partially-reconstructed by production designer Ulrich Bergfelder. Secondly, the extras and the objects in the space: Werner hired real craftsmen and had them perform the tasks they normally do in real life. Thus, in the bazaar depicted in Queen of the Desert, there are no extras hammering a stone completely meaninglessly in the background, just to create any movement in the frame: when you see a man with a hammer, you can be sure that he is really creating something in that particular moment—a piece of jewelry, a pan, horseshoes, anything. Similarly, the smoke you see in the air does not come from a smoke-machine, as it does in most films. Real meat was put on burning charcoal, and its smell filled the air. After everything was arranged with the location and the extras, as the last moment, Werner introduced the main actors in the bazaar and had them interfere with the environment. You see, he always provokes things: he brings obstacles, so that the actors are faced with something they do not like. Method actors—especially American actors—love to take the obstacles into their characters, while other actors simply stop acting when they feel disturbed: “I can't walk here because there is this chair,” and things like that.

So, in front of me there was the magical reality of the bazaar, a scenery that is constructed but nevertheless contains real life. I had read the screenplay, I knew the story and the dialogues: my role was moving through this big stage with the camera, which is like a little window, and showing what happens between the main characters, together with hints of the particular life that is taking place all around them. 

NOTEBOOK: And how do you go back from the compressed image in the “little window” to “the image of the whole”? 

ZEITLINGER: As a director, Werner tries to provoke a natural randomness, because he is looking for all the little details and mistakes that can create the feeling of a bigger world. It is the same for me: for instance, if it's in the right moment, even an ugly lens flare can be incorporated in the flow of the film, to give you the feeling that you are looking into a real world instead of into something perfectly clean, sterilized, glossy. I would say that controlled randomness is the key: that's why sometimes I call my work “surfing on incidents.”

NOTEBOOK: Queen of the Desert is a fiction film, a historical drama set at the beginning of the 20th century. Is your work similar in documentary filmproductions?

ZEITLINGER: I would say so, yes. The idea that a documentary is “life as it is” is a big misunderstanding, in my view. The documentaries that I did or that I am doing are always a matter of recreating what is there in front of me, just like Queen of the Desert and the other fiction films. In both documentary and fiction films, I see the world as it is and the mechanics behind it, but I have to condense reality into images, into scenes. I have to transform reality into events on the screen, because “life as it is” is just very, very boring: there's no tension, there's no rhythm, there are too many empty moments.

If I had to find a difference between documentary and fiction, I would say that, when I am working on a documentary, I am doing more “directing” than in fiction films. In a fiction film, the director can create a scenery and exercise a certain degree of control over it, whereas in documentaries I am much more on my own: things happen and it is up to me to capture and assemble them into the shot, keeping in mind that it might not be possible to shoot a “take two.”

NOTEBOOK: What was your typical working day while shooting Queen of the Desert?

ZEITLINGER: The shoot was divided into three distinct phases, so my working day wasn't always the same. In the first phase, we did all these marvelous shots in the desert, with the wind and the snow. It was a very “documentary style” kind of shoot. We didn't have the main actors on board yet: we only had the supporting actors, and Silvia, my wife, was riding the camel as a stunt double for Mrs. Kidman. There also were some days in which we hanged around doing nothing, just sorting out and preparing the equipment. During one of these “quiet days,” a sandstorm came out of the blue, and Werner of course said: “Come on, let's go out and shoot!” So we grabbed the equipment and filmed for a few hours in the sandstorm. After that, we spent a lot of hours cleaning the sand from the lenses, the cameras and all the equipment.

In the second phase, we had all the main actors on board, and this was quite a “regular” kind of shoot on location. Contrary to the first phase, we had a detailed daily schedule listing the scenes to shoot in the desert. However, as it always happens when there is a schedule, Werner kept changing things at the very last moment, in order to somehow disturb the actors and the crew. You see, when you are shooting every day, it becomes a routine, even if you are immersed into the most wonderful, unique natural landscape. So Werner was modifying the schedule over and over to keep us on our toes. It was a constant reminder: we were not on holidays, everybody had to be always alert and get new ideas.

The third phase was the most “professional” part of the shooting. We were working in England, with a huge English crew, and we found ourselves confronted with this very strict department system in which every person does just one small part of the job. As you can see in Cave of Forgotten Dreams [2010], Werner usually works with his hardcore crew made of very few people doing everything: we are multifunctional, so whenever something needs to be done, we do it ourselves. We really like to work in such a chaotic and anarchic way. It is good for Werner's projects. But, during the shooting of Queen of the Desert in England, everything was very, very bureaucratized: the workflow went from the department head to the head assistant, and from the head assistant to the assistants of the head assistant, and from the assistants of the head assistant to all the other laborers. For example, when you go for union rules and professional work, and you ask for a lamp, three people show up: the electrician is carrying the cables, a grip guy is carrying the stand for the lamp and another grip guy is carrying the flex and doing the shadows with the barn doors. The bureaucracy and the order require a lot of time and a lot of people to achieve very simple things. Moreover, you have to make space on set for all these people, and they have to be fed and lodged in a hotel, so everything becomes very big and complicated. Within this department system, I was the “director of photography,” an expression I do not like because it sounds dictatorial to me. I cannot really picture myself giving orders around. I prefer when there is an intimate, friendly, conspiratorial atmosphere on the set.

NOTEBOOK: You have just mentioned issues of production and film shooting. The material you shot for Queen of the Desert was then passed on to the post-production people. Do you work with post-production issues in mind, as far as cinematography is concerned?

ZEITLINGER: Yes, I do. For Queen of the Desert I worked in close collaboration with the head of post-production, my friend Kaspar Kallas and his wife Aune, who did the colorgrading of the rushes on the set. I was shooting in two different HDR streams (a highlight stream and a normal-exposed stream), so we assembled the two streams on the set to get an impression of the image that we wanted to achieve for the big screen. The film editor Joe Bini was also with us: during the day, while we were out shooting, he was assembling the scenes from the previous day, so in the evening, or in the morning of the next day at the latest, we could see a first edit. What digital technology allows us to do nowadays is great: we get a quick feedback, and we save time and money. Perhaps it is somehow too quick, though, too immediate: sometimes I feel like we don't have the time to fantasize about the material we shot and imagine things anymore.

NOTEBOOK: I guess what interests Mr. Herzog as a creative artist is the struggle against material circumstances and limitations in order to fulfill his inner vision. Sometimes he “wins,” sometimes he “loses,” but it is the struggle that really matters. As you explained, you are one of the people involved in trying to approximate the unapproachable “image of the whole,” so I was wondering: what interests you most as a cinematographer?

ZEITLINGER: I am flattered when people tell me that they liked the images in this or that film I worked on. It is good for my ego. [Laughter] However, beauty for the sake of beauty does not interest me. The point of my work is not taking nice pictures of people and landscapes. What I try to do is supporting the story, helping construct the world in which the story takes place. So my favorite scenes are when I have the feeling that a world is created on screen. As a cinematographer, I want spectators to be sucked into the window in front of them. I want them to feel that they are really moving through the world depicted on the screen. This is the greatest and most important thing for me.

There are some scenes like that in Queen of the Desert, especially the ones that were not cut into pieces. For example, I like the scene in which Gertrude Bell—Mrs. Kidman—pays a visit to a military big-shot in his headquarters: the camera follows her as she walks through a hall with columns; as she exits the frame, the military appears in the background and comes toward the camera saying “I have summoned you, Miss Bell”. Then, when the line is delivered, the camera rotates to show Gertrude replying “Nobody summons me.” I like it when there is a flow between the movements of the actors, the movement of the camera, and the dialogue exchanges: it is almost like a ballet. This is one of my favorite scenes. You see, I always try to capture scenes that contain the whole world, but sometimes the producers or the editor think these scenes are too long and boring, so they eliminate things here and there, and suddenly all the world falls apart. That's a pity.

NOTEBOOK: Many cinematographers I talked to have compared their work to dance...

ZEITLINGER: Yes, filmmaking is like dancing, especially when you are physically carrying the camera around. The camera is my dance partner: as I move around the set, I hold it in my arms, taking little steps left and right, forward and backward, while the actors perform their own choreography at the same time. We are immersed in this scenery, in this energy field, and we interact—invisible strings bringing us closer together or further apart. My hope is that through all this movement, the audience ends up being moved too.

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BerlinaleBerlinale 2015Peter ZeitlingerWerner HerzogUlrich SeidlFestival CoverageInterviews
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