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Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Ballhaus Talks 'The Book Thief'

Interviews
by Bill Desowitz
November 15, 2013 12:23 PM
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"The Book Thief" might be flying under the Oscar radar, but it's still a gentle gem worth considering. True, it's old-fashioned and sentimental while contemplating the vicarious power of storytelling. But it's a unique Holocaust story told from a child's point of view as well as Death's (adapted from the best-seller by Markus Zusak). And that's what attracted DP Florian Ballhaus, best known for comedy ("The Devil Wears Prada"), and the son of the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who's worked with both Fassbinder and Scorsese).

"I enjoyed how it dealt with innocence and guilt through the eyes of children and their everyday lives," Ballhaus says. "In a way it legitimizes the simplicity or the sense of brutality that is shown from a kid's point of view in that world."

Directed by Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey") with attention to innocence, Ballhaus insists that it was important not to be confined to one look. They didn't want period bleak so they gave it a broad visual palette that stayed true to the emotional temperature of each scene. "That meant different point of views, going from Death [voiced by the commanding yet seductive Roger Allam] to Leisel [played by Sophie Nelisse] and we had to differentiate what that was going to be." 

But the emphasis, of course, is on Liesel, which meant it had to have an immediacy to its camera placement and movement. And for Death, the shots became more epic and sweeping. "We allowed ourselves to have that bit of distance that the Death voice-over would grant you rather than being as big and epic as we could. To me, it's always more interesting to analyze your tools and your choices with every scene. For period, I have a fear of the monotony of just one look. Some moments are intimate and dark and others are more cheerful with lots of movement." 

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