”Cinematography is the art of light and shadows, visual metaphors and nuances” (J. KAMIŃSKI)
Janusz KAMIŃSKI was on our list for a very long time as one of the highest priority, world-class cinematographers who simply had to become a part of our Club of the Greats, and finally we see this come true – the official Laureate of the Golden Camera 300 at the 41 edition of the Manaki Brothers is no one else but him. At the same time, at the age of only 61, he is the youngest recipient of this award, — born on 27 June 1959, in Ziębice, Poland, as Janusz Zygmunt Kamiński. In 1981 he moved to the USA which is where, after his graduation, he in fact started his successful career, undertaking work on films that build an imposing body of work and achieving results which have launched him right at the top of world cinematography. Aged 22 at the time (1982-87) he started his studies at the Film School in Columbia College in Chicago where he got his BA in Film, and then, in 1987 he proceeded to graduate from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. During his studies he met and became a close professional friend with the Italian Mauro Fiore (who would proceed to be his closest collaborator in his subsequent work as second unit cinematographer or gaffer) who would be the cinematographer on LOST SOULS, directed by Kamiński, while in 2010 Fiore also got his only Academy Award for the cinematography on J. Cameron’s film AVATAR. They are both also good friends with Phedon Papamichael (our laureate of the Special Golden Camera 300 for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema Art) and Wally Pfister, as all of them had been gaining experience together in the early stages of their subsequently flourishing careers, working on low-budget films produced by Roger Corman.
Kamiński gained his worldwide glory through the creative collaboration as a tandem partner of the leading American director Steven Spielberg, whose films have earned him two Academy Awards: one for the SCHINDLER’S LIST (1994) and one for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1999). In fact, he is the cinematographer of 7 of Spielberg’s films which have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best picture, including: MUNICH (2002), BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), THE POST (2017), plus the three Academy Award nominations as a cinematographer of the films AMISTAD (2008), LINCOLN (2013) and the WAR HORSE (2012), while his last nomination is for the film THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2008), directed by Julian Schnabel. The two Academy Awards and four Oscar nominations are more than a sufficient testament to the genius class that he belongs to as a cinematographer, and to this we may add another 36 international awards and 67 nominations, so that our Golden Camera 300 is only a symbolic cherry on the top of his body of work so far.
With his latest films, which are now in post-production, the collaboration of the tandem Spielberg-Kamiński numbering over 20 credits, is among the most fruitful ones worldwide, as they mutually complement and enhance each other in complementary, symbiotic creativity. From the very beginning of their collaboration they reached their symbolic peak with the masterpiece SCHINDLER’S LIST which earned 10 Oscars, including the individual ones: the one for Best Direction for Spielberg and the one for Best Cinematography for Kamiński, then the one for Best Production Design given to Allan Starski (for his depiction above all of the atmosphere and ambience of the death concentration camp Auschwitz), who was our guest in Bitola twice, the one for Best Writer to Steven Zaillian, for Best Actor in a Lead Role to Liam Neisson playing the authentic – Oskar Schindler, and finally crowned with the Academy Award for Best Picture which went to Spielberg and Branko Lustig (another one of our Laureates of the Golden Camera 300 for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema Art). However, Kamiński’s Oscar radiates with its specificity which is so essential for any work of cinema art. His black and white photography captures the historic documentary atmosphere of the tragedy of the Jews, in all its juxtapositions of death and life. In fact, Schindler acts as a mediator between the Jews in the Krakow ghetto and the horror they later experience as victims in the death camp Auschwitz at the hands of the executioners from the fascist extinction machinery, led by the psychopath, SS-Commander Göth (in the subtly depicted identification creation of Ralph Fiennes). In the focus of the dramatic, moving events, just as the title of the suggests, is Schindler as a person, and his transformation as he, from a powerful industrialist, owner of an ammunition factory, a rich man, a bon-vivant and womanizer, in the throes of war, when faced with the atrocities committed by the SS fighters against the Jews working in his factory, slowly turns into a savior, with his workers lists that he bribes Göth and the other SS officers for, so that they are not taken to the death camp. Kamiński begins filming this holocaust drama with color photography, with the color flame of the slowly extinguishing candle, while at the same time a prayer can be heard in a synagogue, and through the smoke of the candle the photography turns into black and white. The end of the film is a wide shot, where a huge line of surviving Jews is moving, and as they start descending towards the camera, the black and white photography, which is an indication of their historic reality as victims, turns into color and shows those same people wearing modern clothes, approaching the grave of Oskar Schindler, where, as a ritual, each of them places a stone as a token of gratitude for saving them from death. The second of the two color details is the little girl wearing a red coat, which marks the key turning point in Schindler’s behavior and the start of his ambivalent and in those times quite risky and unusual, humane mission in the midst of the fascist Pogrom of the Jews, with all the dramatic and tragic symbolism and poetics, serving as a proof of Kamiński’s majestic imaginativeness. In order to depict the horrors of the Holocaust and all the horror that the Jews went through, Kamiński alternates between using a hand-held camera, in order to unveil the evil happening in the ghettos and in the death concentration camps, while when shooting interiors he relies on static scenes, which still erupt with drama, such as the factory scene, when Schindler talks to his surviving Jews and German soldiers, asking them to go home before the news about the end of the war break at midnight, or the scene showing the key dramatic meetings between Schindler and his personal assistant, the loyal Itzhak Stern, who types out the lists of the Jews to be saved (in the very suggestive performance by Ben Kingsley) on a typing machine. The scene when Schindler says goodbye to the workers he saved is carried out with a particularly powerful dramatic visual tone, as the workers gift him a gold ring as a token of gratitude made from the gold teeth that one of them had, while Schindler himself breaks down and cries regretting not being able to save more people, although as several of them hug him, Itzhak comforts him that saving 1100 people is a huge humane endeavor. As his nemesis and incarnate of total fascist evil, Kamiński shows and paints the SS officer Göth, in all his insanity as he shoots and kills random people in the concentration camp, or shoots them in the head (when his revolver gets stuck and he is unable to kill one of his victims), or his rivalry with Schindler who bribes him with money, and even his weakness in not being to resist falling in love with a beautiful Jew, against the rules of the SS laws. There are also the Auschwitz scenes, the arrival of the train with people in the snowy winter night, and the palpable tension in the scenes, particularly the one where the women have their hair cut and are stripped naked, taken into a shower room, frantically scared in anticipation of whether it would be poison gas or real water running from the shower pipes, and prior to that, in the ghetto, with the burning of the killed Jews in improvised holes, which, according to the reactions of the people on the spot, soldiers and other inmates, reek with the stench of burnt dead bodies.
The historical drama from the Second World War, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, 5 years after each of them individually had been awarded with an Oscar, brought them their second joint award, whereby the visual structure is naturally a new creation by Kamiński, although similarly based on historic-documentary facts, but under different military conditions. When, in the invasion of Normandy, on D-Day in 1944 the final blow was dealt against German fascism, the drama focuses on the rescue of the last surviving of the four Ryan brothers (played by Matt Damon), while the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller leading a select group of 8 soldiers on a special mission ordered from the military authorities – to bring private Ryan home alive. The opening and closing sequences of the film show the surviving, now already a veteran, Ryan, who at the military cemetery, pays his respect and gratitude to the deceased Captain Miller. After the black and white prologue (the letter sent to the mother of the Ryan brothers, where they inform her about the death of her three other sons) the film opens with the undertaken obligation/mission by the soldiers who are tasked to save her fourth son, Private Ryan deployed on the front in Normandy. The D-Day invasion of Normandy with the ally forces, who undergo bloody confrontations with the German forces, suffering a lot of losses at Omaha beach – is cinematically blended into black and white as color photo, building the documentary atmosphere of the authenticity of war, which Kamiński, along with his crew of cameramen depict in a dramatic and moving way, as if they had descended into the hell of war, creating some sort of a color-metal visual symphony. It was not by accident and it was completely adequate and in solidarity that when presented with the Oscar in 1999, from the hands of Uma Turman, in his concise address Kamiński primarily thanked his collaborators, the camera crew, for their effective work with hand-held camera during the battle scenes. The visual glory of Kamiński’s and his collaborators’ creation in this war drama is evident in a line of sequences: with the waves of bloodshed, the underwater shots of wounded soldiers, the rainy battle days. Among one of the most effectively shot scenes, full of drama, when in the struggle to win a higher ground, exposed to the enemy’s fire and suffering a lot of losses and wounds – is the sequence with the heavily wounded soldier who is given shots of morphine by the other soldiers to help him with unbearable pain although he soon dies with his guts open. Then, the deadly fear and frustration with being left as cannon fodder on the open frontline which takes over the eight privates selected by Captain Miller. He, in the culmination of the argument, with everyone pointing a gun in someone else’s head, calmly starts telling the story of the life he left somewhere in America, wondering whether he would live to go back home alive, but devoted to the mission of saving Private Ryan. He does succeed in doing the latter, but unfortunately not the former.
This drama built through the soldiers’ fight for life and death, with the horror and chaos of war, is impressively visually captured with an effective documentary gamma by Kamiński and his camera crew.
The three Academy Award nominations for the films LINCOLN (with the Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role as the American President at the end of the Civil War, faced with the challenges of the abolition of slavery) and the related AMISTAD (with Anthony Hopkins in the role of the former president John Quincy Adams, who fights for the release of the Africans who start a mutiny on their way to America to be sold as slaves) and the WAR HORSE (about a boy’s affection for his horse, sold by his father to the British army, who enlists as a soldier in the First World War in order to be close to the horse) serve to prove the fact that Kamiński finds his essence in the visual-creative expression in Spielberg’s films. All three films are painted in an adequate color gamma and dynamics, in order to capture the spirit of the time and the psychology of the characters.
Furthermore, Kamiński received the fourth Oscar nomination for probably the most distinctive visual expression in his opus, which is not a Spielberg film, but a Julian Schnabel one – the DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, in which the psychosomatic implosion that would leave the main, authentic character in locked-in syndrome despite being the editor of the media magnate Elle (played by the French actor Matheu Amalric), was undertaken by Kamiński as an exquisite challenge. In fact, after foreshadowing the professional power and ultra-dynamic life of a bon vivant in his youth – Kamiński depicts him in a total extreme, as completely paralyzed, unable to move, with severely impaired eyesight, losing his consciousness, completely mute and unable to communicate with the outside world, without nearly any physical activity – and all of this is visually translated with superior delicacy, through a cinematographic minimalism that resembles a true feat, in order for the film to gain the necessary intrigue and pace!
To paint a full picture about the fruitful collaboration of the Spielberg-Kamiński tandem, I would also like to list the following, more typical films: the second one, chronologically, that they made together THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1996); THE TERMINAL (2003); A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2000); MINORITY REPORT (2001); CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002); WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005); INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2007); THE BFG (2015, screened in the Manaki Junior Programme). From his collaborations with other directors the film JERRY MAGUIRE (1996) by director Cameron Crowe, is also worth mentioning.
Kamiński, as a director, apart from the previously mentioned LOST SOULS, in 2007 also directed and was the cinematographer of a film which is completely in Polish production – HANIA. In line with the motto that we quoted at the beginning of this portrait of Kamiński – in his collaboration, predominantly in Spielberg’s films, as well as with any other director he has worked with, Kamiński applies diverse creative expressions, adjusted to and arising from the very nature of the film at hand, through a combination of techniques accompanied by corresponding cameras, lenses, a specialized imaginative mix of laboratory processing, which are professional nuances that we need to ask Kamiński about in person, at the next meeting with him as our future guest in Bitola, at the 42 edition of the “Manaki Brothers” in 2021…
Blagoja KUNOVSKI – DORE