Posts by Cheryll Barron

Bend it like Von Donnersmarck: how to manipulate cameras and colours to make the vital truth truer and unforgettable


Supermoon, 1 January 2018: same scene, different cameras (above and below)

Of course cameras tell lies, even if ‘The camera cannot lie’ was so widely accepted as a truism, for decades, that it became an irritating cliché. The power of cameras as tools for sophisticated manipulations on the side of the angels, not devils, emerges from the most generous, revelatory interview with a film director that we have ever watched — a feature among the bonuses on the DVD version of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s eleven year-old masterpiece, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).

We remembered a section of that conversation titled Authenticity — about how von Donnersmarck used colour to engage and work on his audience subliminally — as we were studying startling divergences between pictures we took of the New Year’s Day supermoon, using two cameras whose factory settings we have never changed. Why, we wondered, did the baked-in choices (‘default parameters’) of one device yield the souped-up indigo sky of a Disney production, as in the image below, while the other — same view, different angle — gave us virtually what we had actually been looking at (above), no patch of any shade of blue discernible, and conveying what it felt like to be shooting nearly blind into darkness that was somehow both peaceful and faintly dangerous and, except in the pictures’ shimmering focus, dense and deeply inky?

In his account of making The Lives of Others, the director described his chief dilemma. How do you tell the truth about something horrible of the highest importance, giving your viewers a palpable sense of what it was like, but without repelling them, and holding their attention for two hours and seventeen minutes?

He explains how he decided that using a radically constricted colour scheme could help him to steer his tricky course between those objectives to tell his story about the transformation of an officer in the Stasi, the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), after this officer’s discovery — through his  unintentional absorption of poetry and music — of his heart and conscience.

Von Donnersmarck, who was born in West Germany but travelled with his parents to the GDR as a child, felt that he had to immerse his audience in the claustrophobic atmosphere of this surveillance state whose citizens lived in fear of sadistic punishers — a culture of informers, collaborators and liars in which friends betrayed friends and lovers. It was a place that looked drab, above all, but if he portrayed this with a straightforward representation, he risked losing that audience.

Here is how he describes the evolution of his central idea for his drama, in which the Stasi officer is played by Ulrich Mühe, who was once — in real life — an actor in East Germany and actual Stasi target whose Stasi file was part of 110 miles of such files crammed with details of the lives of individual GDR citizens, stored in archives in which von Donnersmarck’s team was the first to have been granted permission to film:

I once read this Lenin quote in a book by Maxim Gorky [in] which Lenin said to him, ‘I don’t want to listen to my favourite piece of music — L’Appassionata by Beethoven — any more, because it makes me want to stroke people’s heads and tell them nice things, and I have to smash in those heads to accomplish my revolution.’

And that quote kind of stuck with me, because it seems one of those extreme examples of someone shutting out their own humanity and just going by principle.

And so I thought about creating a film situation where I could force Lenin to listen to the Appassionata and thereby give history a different course. And Lenin turned into Ulrich Mühe and L’Appassionata into that beautiful piece that Gabriel Yared wrote for our film.

Though The Lives of Others has been showered with prizes and awards, including the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it has been criticised for the very hyper-reality that von Donnersmarck went to such pains to engineer. An American specialist in German studies, Wendy Westphal, concluded in a minutely argued paper about it in 2012 that ‘while Das Leben der Anderen strives to be an authentic representation of the past through its incorporation of real props and on-site filming, […] its plot serves as a subtext that exposes the very concepts of “truth” and “reality” as, at best, elusive ideals.’

This and other objections to the film are well worth reading — especially by those of us who recognise some of the criticism as legitimate, yet still cannot praise it enough. Continuing controversy means continuing attention, and this is a work of art that should be dissected and discussed everywhere, by as many viewers as possible — not least because the amassing of information about us by governments and companies could hardly be more disturbing and topical, thirty-three years after 1984, in which it is set.

To that end, we offer the following transcript of the section of the von Donnersmarck interview by which we were most surprised. There is one other director paying exceptionally close attention to colour that we’d love to hear expounding on this subject — Pedro Almodóvar, whose electrifying interiors of his early films, drawing on a radically different part of the spectrum from von Donnersmarck’s GDR, put apricot and cherry red next to turquoise blue and chrome yellow in ways we’ve found equally indelible.

After I’d finished the screenplay, I realized that one of the main challenges would be, how do you create a world that people would want to sit and watch for two hours and seventeen minutes. And if I’d just created a kind of drab, completely realistic GDR, people wouldn’t want, er, … wouldn’t want to do that. It would just be too visually exhausting.

So I thought of something that people used to do a lot — and in American films too, actually — which was come up a very clear colour concept and with a very clear palette of colours and thereby create a visual world that was so consistent that it became beautiful.

It’s just like, if you take a film like Indiana Jones, for example. That is a film with a clear and beautiful colour concept, almost going as far as to have a texture concept. It’s just like if you close your eyes and think of Indiana Jones and think, what colours do I think of? You see the brown of Indiana Jones’ hat and whip. You know, that’s one clear colour. You see that kind of yellow sand. And you see maybe some kind of red of a desert sunset. It’s of those colours that the film is made up and they stay with that pretty consistently.

So when you think back to that film, when you feel back to that film, [… it’s …] like they created a universe for you that you can go back to in your fantasies. And I wanted to do the same here. And so I thought, what can I show that would still be true? And so with my production designer, with whom I spent about half a year developing that concept, we watched many, many, many films from the GDR. We looked at hundreds of photo books and searched in our own memories.

Then I realised that there was not so much clear blue in the GDR, and not so much red, and that maybe we would achieve an authentic GDR and a beautiful GDR by eliminating those colours altogether. And then I tried that out just by cutting out objects and saw that basically, if we replaced everything that was blue with green objects, if we replaced everything that was red by a kind of brown-y orange, then we would actually create a slightly stylized world that still felt functional and still felt like the actual GDR.

Our brilliant costume designer also made costumes to fit that and to fit every individual set. Actually, that was an amazing thing — the communication between the production designer and the costume designer. They really worked for one another, and a few sets we changed based on a beautiful costume, and the other way around of course, very often.

We created a GDR which is in a way truer than the true thing. [… When we travelled around the GDR for the presentation of the film …] people would come up to us and say, wow! it’s incredible, you know, that’s exactly how it was. […] And you know, that’s because in our memories things become stronger than they were — so if there was a dominance of certain colours, those other colours we almost forget about. So in a way, we’ve created a GDR that is truer than the real thing. That is real-er than the actual GDR and, I hope, more beautiful.

disneyish supermoon 1.1.2018



for  1. 1. 2018

december 20 2017 cusp of the solstice

surprised deer FINAL

A poem we came across fit our 2017 exactly — both our personal experience of it and impressions of the state of things everywhere. No matter how closely we paid attention to what should be perfectly insulated from ugliness — always a good idea — there was seemingly no escaping the spirit of the year.

From a quick check, we learnt that this poem could easily have been written during the Second World War. With more time, we’d be interested to know what was happening in the life of the frequently magnificent Robert Frost, then.

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.

‘One Step Backward Taken,’ Robert Frost, 1947

Here’s hoping for a rather different backdrop for 2018 …

H  A  P  P Y    N  E  W   Y  E  A  R


A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind (republished 16.11.2017)

[ An unknown tamperer was responsible for the broken Google link to this, one of our most popular posts, first published on Valentine’s Day 2012 — for which we got a ‘Page not found’ message a few minutes ago. It is still topical and worth republishing. ]

‘Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’ When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat … [E]motionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs.’

Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,’

Michaeleen Doucleff,  The Wall Street Journal, 11 February 2012

Digesting a grisly dissection of the bio-chemical effects of romance set to music in a financial newspaper told me that February the 14th can only become a more diabolical conspiracy between commercial and scientific calculation.

No sooner had I slogged through the neuroscientific perspective on l’amour than I found an email message from Hewlett-Packard offering me a 50 per cent discount on printer ink with the coupon code ‘HPLOVE20’. The promotion was not stingy with fake sentiment: ‘Our adoration for you is lasting – this offer is not.’

And there you have the reasons why would rather dedicate today not to courtship or its consequences but to the perfect potential marriage of means and ends that we have in the World Wide Web — for redesigning the way companies make money from social networking.

The plan for this Alternative Valentine’s Day was inspired by reading Deborah Orr’s thoughtful anti-Facebook protest in The Guardian last week:

“While the US was extolling the virtues of neoliberal corporatism […] Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the world wide web, and gifting it to the planet, for people like Mark Zuckerberg to exploit.”

And to make sure no one had missed the significance of what she said, commenters on her piece underlined its essence:

Not sure how many will realise that what Deborah is saying amounts to this:

(i) Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a research scientist in Geneva, gave us all the World Wide Web for nothing

(ii) Facebook users are giving the world information about themselves for nothing

(iii) Mark Zuckerberg came along and used Tim’s and everyone else’s generosity to everyone else to make a pile for himself.

1 extremely remarkable member of the 1% indeed.

When will the average Facebook user catch on?

That users are beginning to grasp the dimensions of the Facebook heist – in plain sight and with the full cooperation of its victims – is clear from  newspaper articles elsewhere:

Facebook Users Ask, ‘Where’s Our Cut?

Nick Bilton

The New York Times

February 5, 2012, 11:00 am

SAN FRANCISCO — By my calculation, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owes me about $50.

Without me, and the other 844,999,999 people poking, liking and sharing on the site, Facebook would look like a scene from the postapocalyptic movie “The Day After Tomorrow”: bleak, desolate and really quite sad. (Or MySpace, if that is easier to imagine.) Facebook surely would never be valued at anything close to $100 billion, which it very well could be in its coming initial public offering.

So all this leaves me with a question: Where’s my cut? I helped build this thing, too. Facebook laid the foundation of the house and put in the plumbing, but we put up the walls, picked out the furniture, painted and hung photos, and invited everyone over for dinner parties.

Some of Deborah Orr’s commenters – or at least one – thought the remedy for this injustice obvious:

[ lightly edited for repetition ]

[W]e need to start a movement to turn Facebook into a giant cooperative — in which the users make up the rules, and personal information is not sold to anyone.


Alternatively, …I have heard that a new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and that he is clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich — as Deborah Orr says — and that this is deeply wrong, …and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods that were hard to find anywhere else. Sometimes, those hairy hippies operated cafés where you could eat earnest, do-gooder sandwiches fringed with medicinal bean sprouts and tasting like specially aged damp sawdust.

Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise.  The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. And, as the same commenter said.

To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work on this very site.

Consider, please:

‘the scheme of social organisation which places the means of production of wealth and the distribution of that wealth into the hands of the community.’

That is a dictionary definition (Chambers) of what became a dirty word for many of us, because the idea was so corrupted in its execution. Yes, I mean, socialism.

But that was before this means of communicating and transparent  decision-making was invented.

A hybrid between socialism and capitalism is what we need as a transitional scheme, and you can download a no-holds-barred exchange on that subject here (a free download: see the comments and response to them at the end, if in a hurry): The Keiretsu-Cooperative: a Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing

Well alright, I’ll admit that those comments closely echo sentiments expressed on this blog. They might even have been made by the same tiresome blogger.

Cooperatives sound embarrassingly utopian. But they are the finest examples of socialism in action that we have. An earlier entry in this spot quoted an authority on the subject saying that in the U.S., capitalism’s Mecca, 13 million American already work for these organisations.

Some people react to philosophical nudges in that direction with a silence in which you can almost hear them thinking, ‘But who are you to propose evolutionary possibilities for business?

Actually, nobody. But Albert Einstein anticipated this little difficulty. In a 1949 essay, ‘Why Socialism?’,  he reached far back into history to analyse people’s reluctance to break out of well-established patterns, noting:

The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But, as he said in his conclusion,

[W]e should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Where is it engraved in stone that Facebook has to be owned by a wealthy 1 per cent enriched by the 99 per cent sharing their private information as unquestioningly as feudal serfs?