Jacques Tourneur — The Story of Filming ‘Berlin Express’ 🇺🇸

Berlin Express | www.vintoz.com

November 25, 2021

Despite equipment shortages and other handicaps, Lucien Ballard, A.S.C., has accomplished some startlingly realistic photography in this monochrome production for RKO.

by Herb A. Lightman

Many Directors of photography attempting the documentary approach in shooting photoplays today endeavor to “hold a mirror up to Nature,” with the invariable result that their photography often has a disturbing harsh quality. Cinematic purists inevitably laud this lack of refinement as “Art,” maintaining that the unvarnished simplicity of the thing is what makes it go. Actually, a great deal of just plain poor photography has thus gotten by under the guise of documentary realism, but directors of photography in Hollywood are proving that realism and studio finish can be successfully combined.

Lucien Ballard, A.S.C., succeeds brilliantly in polishing the mirror which he holds up to Nature in “Berlin Express.” Even the studio-staged sequences have a convincing realism, and the location footage has the finish and high quality which American audiences have come to expect in top Hollywood studio productions. The blending of the two styles created a perfect medium for the telling of a story with a factual background.

“Berlin Express” is the story of a girl and four men of assorted nationalities, all of whom are travelling separately to Berlin on the train from which the film takes its name, and who become involved in the murder of a German peacemaker while en route. Upon arriving in Frankfurt they are informed that the murdered man had been concealing his identity to protect the real diplomat, whereupon said diplomat is promptly kidnapped and the chase begins in earnest.

The story provides a substantial framework for the forceful direction of Jacques Tourneur and the masterful camerawork of Lucien Ballard, A.S.C. Critics and audiences alike are sure to compare Tourneur’s deft directorial style to that of Alfred Hitchcock at his best. Director of photography Ballard’s camera is perfectly attuned to the suspenseful mood and pace of the action, and he deserves special praise for infusing his location photography with the quality and polish typical of the finest studio production camerawork.

“Berlin Express” opens with a montage of scenes in and around Paris which gives the film something of a “March of Time” atmosphere. The narrator sets the stage as the camera picks up views of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Trocadero, the Sacre Coeur Cathedral and the twisting streets of’ Montmartre. In the latter location, some children shoot a pigeon and discover that it has a code message strapped to its leg. When the message is taken to the police the plot begins to congeal and the story moves rapidly from situation to situation.

In order to photograph sequences in Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin, RKO Radio sent a crew and cast of 27 people to Europe for a period of seven weeks. They took along approximately 100,000 feet of film, which incidentally created a continuous storage problem. In each city they had to locate a suitable place for it, such as a cellar or a vacant office in an army-occupied building, but in a bombed-out city storage space is obviously at a premium.

The second major problem concerned the processing of the film. Laboratory conditions in Europe were uncertain to say the least, and it would have been impractical to try to maintain precise standards on control under such conditions. There was no alternative but to fly all exposed footage to the United States for processing, and although periodic laboratory reports were sent out, the troupe saw none of the scenes until it returned to Hollywood.

Standard photographic equipment on the overseas jaunt included Mitchell cameras equipped with wide-angle lenses, which proved valuable in filming the crowded location sets and also permitted the cinematographer to achieve some unusually dramatic compositions. On one occasion, in order to photograph an actual black market raid in Germany, the cameramen were dressed in police uniforms and accompanied the Military Police, shooting the entire sequence with hand-held Eyemos. For scenes filmed in Paris the crew used a standard two-magazine DeBrie sound camera.

Motion picture equipment is very scarce abroad and it was indeed difficult to find any that could be borrowed or rented. For this reason, everything that would be needed had to be brought from Hollywood. The company was fortunate, however, in that it located the only available camera car in France, and was able to arrange to use it for the entire seven weeks on location. Extra technicians were hired in France and Germany, the movie industries in both countries providing the necessary skilled men.

“Berlin Express’’ succeeds in projecting an atmosphere of desolation underscored with shifting currents of intrigue, drama and reawakened hope. This effect is the result of a combination of skillful direction, lighting and camera angles. The piles of rubble which form the backgrounds for much of the action might have appeared incoherent and undramatic had they been photographed by a less skillful cinematographer. Four years of rain, sun and wind had faded the piles of debris to a colorless mass, and it required exacting cross-lighting to faithfully put across the drama of the terrifying devastation. In panning past the ruins, under certain lighting conditions, the black gaping holes appeared to be merely darkened windows, and it was difficult to capture on film the magnitude of destruction and the desolation of the buildings. On the recommendation of cinematographer Ballard, the shooting schedule was revised to take full advantage of cross-lighting by the sun. The resulting scenes are starkly dramatic with a depth and dimension that makes the lonely wreckage stand out in strong relief.

Much of the action of the picture takes place at night, and these sequences are among the most realistic and impressive in the picture. With one exception, all of the night shots in the film are actually heavily filtered day shots. For lighting in these sequences the camera crew relied principally upon the sun and fill-in reflectors, although a few flood lights were brought along from America for this purpose. It was impossible to get enough electrical equipment in either France or Germany to shoot actual night scenes. The evening scene outside the Gare de L’Est in Paris was the only one actually filmed at night. Producer Bert Granet had to borrow every generator in Paris to do it, but still the scene was underlit.

In viewing the film, even the experienced technician may get the impression that the entire picture was photographed in the actual locale. There is a consistent quality in the photography throughout, a careful matching of interiors with exteriors, of lighting contrasts, and process backgrounds with actual scenes. The remarkable consistency of the process backgrounds is due chiefly to the foresight of Ballard who insisted that process cameraman Harry Perry go along on the European trip. On location, after Ballard had completed shooting a master scene, the process cameraman would then set up in the same place and shoot the same background with identical lighting. Thus, the common production problem of backgrounds that are out of key with the general photography was completely solved. The process shots in “Berlin Express’’ are so well-executed that it is difficult even for the experienced eye to identify them as such.

While the photography throughout the film is uniformly excellent, there are several effects which stand out as being extraordinarily good. In one sequence a character who has just been shot staggers through a crowd of people and pitches forward toward the lens of the camera. The screen goes black for some seconds and then, as the man is lifted up by his cohorts, the scene becomes clear again and the action continues. The effect is startling in its originality.

In another sequence two characters, during the course of a fight, fall through the top of a huge beer vat and continue their struggle in the brew below. A third combatant stands atop the vat and watches them through the gaping hole which they made in falling. The shot of him taken from below shows him framed by the jagged hole, his height exaggerated by the steepness of the angle. The overall effect is a striking and dramatic composition.

In the climactic sequence of the picture, Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan stand talking in the compartment of a train just as it is preparing to pull out. Through the window of their compartment, and reflected intermittently by the windows of a train passing on the adjacent track, the audience can see Charles Korvin attempting to strangle Paul Lukas, the struggle apparently taking place in the compartment adjoining that occupied by Ryan and Miss Oberon. In order to create this special effect, the struggle between Korvin and Lukas was first photographed in a straightforward manner. Then this film image was reflected into the windows of a passing miniature train and re-photographed as an enlarged process background. The resulting composite background was projected outside the train window in the conventional manner and the action of Ryan and Miss Oberon photographed against it. The effect on the screen is uniquely original.

In suspenseful, entertaining “Berlin Express,’ Lucien Ballard proves again that the imaginative and resourceful cinematographer doesn’t always need the conveniences of a Hollywood studio to turn out a first rate job of photography.

Typical of many of the lighting problems encountered by Lucien Ballard in photographing ‘Berlin Express’ is that involved in this setting of a bomb-shattered brewery where extreme depth of focus was a prerequisite.

Director of photography, Ballard, discusses a camera angle with Mrs. Ballard (Merle Oberon) on location in a Paris railroad station. Wide angle lenses were invariably employed when shooting in such crowded locales and were responsible for some highly dramatic compositions.

Outside the bomb-ruined Reichstag in Berlin, the cast and crew of ‘Berlin Express’ prepare to shoot a scene. The troupe, numbering 27 players and technicians, spent seven weeks in Europe.

Dolly tracks are laid in the crooked streets of Montmartre while director Jacques Tourneur, at right in foreground, plans his next shot. Citizens proved only mildly interested in the proceedings.

Source: American Cinematographer, July 1948