Living the Light - Robby Müller
In her beautiful and revealing film essay Living the Light - Robby Müller, Dutch director Claire Pijman profiles the late (and truly great) Dutch visionary Robby Müller, DoP to Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier.
While researching her film Living the Light, selected for Venice Classics and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, Claire Pijman was granted access to an Aladdin's Cave of Polaroids, photographs and Hi8 footage accumulated over many years by Dutch DoP Robby Müller, who died in July 2018 after a long illness.
This treasure trove of ephemera was very personal, and therefore both moving and informative as it mirrored/complemented the various mises en scène that Müller designed for such seminal films as Wim Wender's Paris Texas, Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves.
"I used his images of how he looked at the world," comments Pijman, on devising a structure for her film. "And it was very clear that I wanted to make a film based on these archives. The structure dictated itself as I would run an image from the archives next to an image from the film, and then another image from the film back to the archive. It was quite a puzzle but it was always the structure that I had in mind."
As one can imagine, plaudits and anecdotes telling of Müller's genius abound within Living the Light, from the likes of Wenders and Von Trier who stress the Dutchman's masterly manipulation of light, his revolutionary framing and his ability to capture nuance through colour, thereby creating a unique and specific atmosphere. Through his work, they assert, he redefined the language of cinematic discourse.
Jim Jarmusch is also vocal on the subject of Müller, and further agreed to create a jangly guitar soundtrack for the film, composed with Carter Logan and reminiscent of Ry Cooder's music for Paris Texas. "It's like an extra voice in the film for Robby," notes Pijman.
But the film comes into its own when it is just Robby on screen, shooting himself in hotel mirrors, playing with his children, or shy in front of camera when the lens is turned on him on an Amsterdam river boat. In one exquisite sequence he shoots a postcard home to his mother, using Vi8. Sent from a New York hotel room, the image is perfectly framed and a red scarf draped over a lamp creates (of course) the required level of suffused lighting. "It's like another part of him, the camera. It's connected to him," says Pijman of the personal collection. "I was really surprised by all the images of the hotel rooms... He liked the bohemian life, but you can also see how that brings a downside, a loneliness - that whole feeling of a cameraman being on the road."
Pijman got to know Müller in the mid-1990s when he asked her to be an assistant on a film he was shooting. She refused as she wanted to concentrate on her own career as a cinematographer and director. But Müller retained a keen interest in her work and later engaged her as a cinematographer for the Amsterdam shoot of Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders). The pair remained firm friends, and Müller's subsequent influence was considerable.
"When you come out of film school you end up in a very competitive world, but Robby was always so down-to-earth, and for him it was always important to make images in a very intuitive way - he really showed me that it makes no sense to be so competitive," Pijman stresses, underlining that Müller determined for himself which filmmakers to work with, and which projects to choose.
"He was very keen on saying that cinema should be a co-authorship between the director and the cinematographer. Otherwise it will not add up to anything and it will not bring you any further."
SEE NL Magazine #32 September 2018 / Venice, TIFF & NFF Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.