The Discreet Charms of Simplicity

Russian Film "Leviathan" receives the Golden Frog at Camerimage 2014
By Yuri Neyman, ASC, Founding Partner of Global Cinematography Institute

 “If you look through the lens and you like what's going on, then you are in the right place at the right time” ― Michael Krichman, "Leviathan" Cinematographer


The most distinguishing characteristic of the Russian Film "Leviathan" is that this film is very simple. "Something which is easy to understand or explain is simple, in contrast to something complicated." The film is simple for Russian audiences. Like all great and important Russian classics, it is about the “absolute unbearable Russian life in any of its aspects”.
This film is simple for Western audiences. They see, as many times seen before, the "metaphor" of Russian life as non-stop drinking main and supporting characters shooting at empty bottles of vodka and at portraits of former leaders of the Russian State. The symbolism of the film can offer even more to those who are familiar with the Bible’s Book of Job and with Leviathan, the sea monster used to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God. In the case of the film, questioning the futility of questioning the state power of Russia today.
In the center of the story is Nicholas, who with his father built a house and workshop. His normal life soon falls under the influence of fate aka the all-powered major of his small northern village.

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The repeating shot of the skeleton of a blue whale sitting close to the boy's (one of the film’s main characters) back evokes inescapable symbolism and allusions to the collapsed Boeing airliner also make this film tragically contemporary.
And how you would shoot this kind of film? What kind of cinematographer is needed for this?
Michael Krichman, the cinematographer of "Leviathan", describes his work and attitude toward cinematography in the following words: "You see that in the end will be the film, not without some conventions, of course - after all lens and a large screen are two different things. But you see the frame with a certain depth of field, camera angles, and performances by the cast, that is all the details that no one sees except you, the cinematographer. You are visualizer. It turns out that no matter what would be in the head of director, we shall see that the cinematographer saw".

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Krichman’s approach to his art and craft is rather holistic: "Shooting - it's more intuitive to work, everything is on the level of feelings. That's right, intuition - this is important. It is foolish to ask about favorite techniques of shooting. There are things that I do not like. I do not like man-made devices such as cranes. In working with the crane involved at least three people: camera operator, crane operator, grip and they all perform tasks that you put in front of them. Sometimes you find it difficult to formulate a goal, sometimes people do not come across very professional, but it creates such barriers, which I have not yet interested to overcome so I try not to use this techniques."

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Michael’s cinematographic "language" in "Leviathan”" is simple and consists of very few words - framing, texture, light and contrast, with very little movement - the simplicity and poetry of hyper-realism. What happens in the front of the camera is the artistic expression by itself, and by definition does not need any additional and potentially distractive visual elements. The saying "less is more" fits the visual style of "Leviathan" 100%.


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