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

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 15, 2013 at 12:23PM

The Book Thief" might be flying under the Oscar radar, 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").
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The Book Thief

"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." 

This article is related to: The Book Thief, Immersed In Movies, Features, Interviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.