Theater of Cruelty

To direct oneself

Notes on the cinematographer, Translated into Danish and with preface by Emil Leth Meilvang
Forfatter: Robert Bresson
Forlag: Antipyrine forlag (Danmark)
Robert Bresson's Aphorism Collection Notes on the cinematographer are rarely stylish and minimalist – finally available in Danish translation.


"What is an actress talent? The art of falsifying oneself, wearing a personality other than one's own, appearing differently than one's being, becoming passionate about cold blood, saying something other than what one thinks as natural as one really meant it, and finally Forget their own place by taking someone else's, ”Rousseau writes in Letter to D'Alambert. But where Rousseau hates theater because it creates inauthentic citizens, the theater for Robert Bresson acts as a didactic punchbag that shows everything what film should not be.

Bresson (1907 – 1999) tried himself as an art painter in the 20 years and up to 1933. Then he started writing screenplays, and in 1934 he was behind the short film Public Affairs, which no one has seen since. In the period 1950 – 1974 he made eight feature films, while at the same time, in aphorism form, he developed a film poetics that has subsequently become very influential (in contrast to his own films, which today are mostly seen because of Notes on the cinematographer).


His contemporary films, by Bresson called Chinaéma, he only finds fault with, and the most important mistake is that these films are bastard products that have not detached themselves from other art forms. For Bresson, film is a medium with a unique potential. He describes this potential in precise and laconic aphorisms, and it emerges through negatives: The main error with Chinaéma is the fragile life it has irresponsibly brought from the theater, namely actor. This by definition false appearance has nothing in the cinematographer to do. Consequently, Bresson opposes both Meyerhold and Stanislavsky.



Bresson's own words

Instructor or director. It is not about directing someone, but about directing oneself. No actors. (No instruction by actors.) No roles. (No learning of roles.) No staging. But the use of models, taken from life. TO BE (model) instead of ACT (actor). The tone film opens its doors to the theater, which occupies the space and surrounds it with barbed wire. To think it is more natural if a movement is done that way or that way, or if a sentence is said in a given way, is in itself absurd; it makes no sense in the kinemato graph. Dig deep into your own senses. See what's in there. Don't analyze it with words. Translate it into sister pictures, to equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the clearer the style becomes. (Style: all that is not technique.) It is the model's non-rational, non-logical "I" camera detects. (Translated from Emil Leth Meilvang's Notes on the Cinematographer)


Bresson's film poetics has subsequently become very influential.

Neither physiognomics nor facts, nor impersonation of another person, can be tolerated in Bresson's sacred film medium. The world of cinematography has more in common with the art painting than Bresson openly admits: The actor is shuffled out of Eden's garden and replaced by models. No actors can be models. Models act – at least ideally – automatically and guided by habits. They will perform their tasks so many times that everything of intention and will is finally washed away. All what the models not shows, are basic qualities that are just as fully captured by the film camera. The director's communication with the models is telepathic and pioneering, and his project must be constantly and intuitively open to grasp the lacerations that other objects, lights, sounds and weather conditions bring (kaleidoscopic weather) (before they disappear next).

The director as an instrument

The director should not use instruments, he should be an instrument – a precision instrument that uses the exclusive cinematic repository to create and recreate through what we know from (for example) Eisenstein's catalog of different types of assembly. Eisenstein's assembly register was heavily influenced by the contrasts of constructivism constituted by conflicts – whose goal seam could be tolerated by the revolution. Such mounting becomes far too noisy for the concentrated and reducing Bresson: All spotlighting must go away, only the essence must appear in its nakedness; and this is where the art painting once again sings behind the Bressonian forests.


Just as Kraftwerk reduced its compositions to only archetypal contours, Bresson's creator of cinematography will remove anything that does not contribute to the sensations and impressions that are sought after. An intellectual staging or adaptation will only destroy. But the comparison with Kraftwerk has long since stopped: While "Die Robots" regrets how humans live machine lives, such anti-humanism for Bresson is a life free from punctuation and false faces.

Text vs. picture

Bresson's films, together with his famous text, can be seen as a critical examination of the nature of cinematic narration. The three films he made in the 50's are all variations over a written diary turned into voice-over on visualized action. In all three films, Bresson exposes the tension between written and spoken text on the one hand and fragmentary film images on the other. His storytellers tell themselves (and us) stories to find out what happened to them. This volatility of meaning is reflected in Bresson's cutting. Erik Løchen's genius Jakten (1959) is obviously inspired by Bresson's theory and films.



Bresson's films received lukewarm reception in their day, and they will not receive any renaissance either. To that end, they are overly sterile and almost shockingly marked by the time they were created; So they are both sterile and old-fashioned. His Notes on the cinematographer, on the other hand, will live on, and not just among filmmakers. The aphorism collection has value for everyone who engages in intellectual and / or artistic activities. Rarely have a bunch of rules of thumb, insistence and caution appeared more stylish and minimalist. In Bresson's spirit, I summarize them here in one sentence: Do not do what you are not to do!

Kjetil Korslund
Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.

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