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An Interview with Hans Fromm

Hans Fromm is an acclaimed cinematographer known for his work on Jerichow, Barbara, Phoenix, Transit and Undine. I spoke with Hans about collaborating with Christian Petzold, working on Barbara, the logistical difficulties of shooting Transit, and his preferred camera of choice.

Where did you train as a cinematographer?

I studied in the 80s as a first assistant. Later on I studied at the Berlin Camera School, which was not so amazing at that time.

We were not connected to directors so it was an absolutely useless school because there were only cinematographers, no directors or anything. We did our own films, which was nice of course, but not very helpful for our future career.

I spent most of my time at the Berlin Film School (dffb), visiting seminars there and shooting films with the students there as a cinematographer.

How did you get your break into the industry?

Actually by doing some graduate films at the Berlin Film School.

Who were your DP inspirations?

At the beginning it was Nestor Alemendros, William Lubtchansky, Robby Muller, John Seale and Gordon Willis.

Where do you get your visual and creative inspirations from?

It’s something that has developed over the years. It’s always different depending on which film I am shooting and what kind of story it is, or what I discuss with the director.

In general it may be a theme, a painter a photographer or other movies.

You frequently collaborate with Christian Petzold. How did you first come to know one another?

As I said before I did some graduate films on the dffb. On one of these films I met Christian. It was always a collaboration between students at that time. He did the sound on my first feature film. That’s where I met him and he asked me for his graduate film. That was 1994.

I want to ask specifically about Barbara. What were the conversations you had with Christian about the look of the film? What did he want to achieve?

For this film there was no real major theme. There was just a feeling lying underneath that we wanted to talk about, being controlled and trapped almost. In this film we didn’t want to have really intense visual translations for them. The film takes places in the ‘80s in the previous GDR. Mostly there was a certain kind of look that people put on the GDR, which was sort of colourless. The ‘80s in the GDR were also a colourful time. It was with extreme colours and fully saturated colours. What I tried to achieve with this film was to try to get fully saturated colours, for my part. I think it was one of the first films I did with a digital intermediate. I tried to enhance the colour as much as I could. I thought it was right for the film.

What sort of research was involved before shooting?

For me, as a cinematographer it is mostly the locations. I get a lot from the locations and I try to be inspired by them. Then maybe add some things here and there in collaboration with the art department and of course some discussions. For some films we might find certain themes that might be underlying and we try to translate this into the pictures, but not too obvious of course. I don’t want to have the pictures standing out. If it’s part of the film and the film is as good as its weakest link. I think it’s also important trying to integrate my cinematography into the film and the story it is trying to tell and not to show off too much.

On the set of Barbara. Photo: Christian Schulz

Are locations the biggest challenge?

I wouldn’t call it a challenge actually. I think it’s really inspiring seeing something that you wouldn’t expect for a location for a certain thing and then to adapt it and to use the influences that the certain location might give you to support your idea of the film.

Do you prefer working with directors you’ve previously collaborated with? Is it an easier process?

I wouldn’t say it’s easier. I like it as much as I like to work with somebody new because on the one hand it is a simpler understanding of the director that I’ve been working with for a long time. It makes life easy when it comes to understanding what he wants, or where we should go and of course that’s beautiful. On the other hand, it’s also really beautiful and important for my work to find new directors to work with. If you have a close look there are lots of debut films that I’m doing, when I’m not working with Christian. I think it’s quite interesting to work with new talents.

What camera and lenses did you use for Barbara?

Barbara I shot on a MovieCam Compact with MasterPrimes - I felt the focus was helpful for the analog release prints.

I think by the time it was the only camera our rental was able to provide with 3-perf. I would have preferred the 535 B but due to the digital revolution there was none available.

Hans Fromm shooting Barbara. Photo: Christian Schulz

What’s your preferred camera to use?

Nowadays it’s not really useful to think about shooting on film in Germany because we don’t have any labs anymore, so it would be a logistical debacle. I think the digital cameras like the Arri Alexa is really advanced now and you can do a lot on that which you couldn’t do on film. I think we are now at the point where we really profit from digital cameras because we can achieve really nice looks. We can achieve, in a certain way to make it look like it was all shot on film.

The last film I shot on film was Phoenix. I enjoyed it a lot because of the whole procedures. Everybody had to come in and watch the dailies, not feeling that they had seen it on set on the monitor already. Getting the team together to watch the dailies was the fun part about shooting on film. It’s also something that I’m really accommodated with of course. With digital, there is always a new experience coming along.

You were also DP on Transit. What were the logistical difficulties shooting that film?

The biggest difficulty was the city of Marseille itself because there are narrow streets and you can’t park everywhere, or have huge parking spaces or trucks around. You really have to limit the equipment which you can use. It’s also really windy there, especially for the exteriors. The sun is coming in pretty steep and it was really a challenge to handle the high contrast at midday, especially as Christian has a tendency to rehearse around midday. Sometimes it is also nice to use it that way. For example, there is one scene where the doctor and Franz are going back to the hotel and it was really the worst time to shoot. The sun was really steep on the one hand, and on the other hand we had these deep black outs happening. I didn’t have a chance to light it on the exterior, but the result was really interesting. I thought because of the high contrast and they walk into the black.

I really like to use anything I find when shooting that I can use for the film. There is a certain point where we have to say no this doesn’t fit, but sometimes it is really interesting to take some risks, like with this one for example. We were quite limited because we didn’t have infinite resources, so we had to live with what we could get. You find really interesting stuff. There’s one scene where the lead actress is walking away by night and she turns around and there is some flashing light in her face. Initially, Christian really wanted to have a source of lights on the camera that really flashes into her, but then I saw the location and the street lights in Marseille are already pretty bright. I had to find a nice spot where she turns around and I get the effect. It was really nice to find it that way.

Do you have similar conversations with Christian before you shoot a film? Could you tell me more about that process?

In the beginning we had long discussions about the film, but later on it has become shorter and takes place mostly right when we start finding locations. Then we of course have discussions and he explains his goals. These discussions continue throughout the film. We have discussions over location, then we have discussion during preparation of sets and when shooting we always take the weekend to plan ahead. It’s an easier shoot that way because everything is planned throughout.

I suppose there is also an element of trust after having collaborated so many times…

Yes, the trust started from the beginning because when we started to work together he was always relying on me, whatever I was doing. It was always hard for me to get him to the camera and say have a look, do you like it. He just trusted me. This is different now because everyone uses a monitor, but I enjoyed a lot of trust in the beginning when we started to work together.

Is there a particular sequence or shot throughout your work that was the most challenging to shoot?

On Undine, for example, I had to work with operators underwater. You can talk to the people in the tank because they have a loud speaker in there, and you have a microphone and can tell them what you want. On the other hand the feedback only goes by signing, so you wave the camera if you understood or something. It was pretty challenging for me and I always hate it if I don’t operate myself. I have to rely on another person and it isn’t always easy. I have some guys that I work brilliantly with, like Matthias Biber who did the last few films with Christian. I always feel that this is very challenging. Because I’m very controlling it’s awful for these poor people that have to do Steadicam with me.

Is there anything you’re currently working on?

No I had a break. Christian plans to do his next film next summer. One reason of course is Corona as he didn’t want all the trouble on set and he wouldn’t appreciate that, so he postponed it for next year.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My most important thing is don’t care too much about what people think about what I’m doing. If you are in the opinion that it’s right, it’s the best way to go. Don’t try to please.

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