2022 has been a busy year for the cinematographer, who has worked with Terence Davies and Scott Cooper. Along with TÁR, back in March, Hoffmeister was a part of Apple TV+’s acclaimed series Pachinko, working on the four episodes directed by Kogonada (After Yang). In the film, which hit theaters in October, his work was given additional visibility when it recently won the top prize at the Camerimage Film Festival. An illustrious honor, three out of five Golden Frog winners in the past got to secure a spot at the Oscars (Lion, Joker and Nomadland).
In TÁR, Todd Field’s triumphant return to cinema, chronicles the world of (fictional) renowned composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett); who she is, the height of her fame and notoriety and her dramatic fall from grace. In no small part of examining Tár is the film’s director of photography Florian Hoffmeister.
Although Hoffmeister is in Iceland and full-steam-ahead working on True Detective’s new season, directed by Issa López and starring Jodie Foster, he was most gracious to carve out some time to talk with us about Oscars odds, working on home grounds and framing Field’s vision. Our interview with him also marks AwardsWatch’s third in the series of the cast and filmmakers of TÁR; you can check out Ryan McQuade’s sit-down with director Field here and actress Nina Hoss here.
Nguyên Lê: When you approached this project, what did you think your visuals must place emphasis on—the character, her musical occupation or something else?
Florian Hoffmeister: Oh, that’s a very good question… It’s something that I haven’t been asked before. It’s a really interesting observation. In the case of TÁR, the authenticity of that space was paramount for the visual language. So I think there’s an element of observation in the visuals, and it’s observing the character in its world, or in her world. And that world had to be absolutely believable and authentic. I think that if I were to concentrate more on the character, I think that is more in the domain of how Todd shaped the entire piece and in editorial choices.
NL: I was planning to ask you later on whether architecture plays a big role in TÁR, but from your answer, I guess it’s a resounding “yes”?
FH: It is. And I want to credit Todd [for this]. What was interesting to me, on a personal level, was that I live in Berlin, but I hadn’t shot there in almost 15 years. I think Berlin is not an easy place to photograph.
NL: Oh, how so?
FH: When you live there, and it might be my subjectivity, but sometimes it’s the atmosphere of becoming, of change. And Berlin doesn’t really have clear, iconic places that have endured the [impact] of time. It’s just harder to find iconography. When Todd came to Berlin to shoot this film, of course, the choice and search for locations were partly fueled by his curiosity. It was a great privilege to, for the lack of a better word, piggyback on his curiosity and rediscover the city through his eyes.
NL: Did you feel like his tour guide?
FH: Not at all! It’s like you watch a film with somebody and then you watch a film with somebody else, and the film changes its quality just by the atmosphere we share within an audience. It’s the same almost to a city. We had a very, very close working relationship, and I actually rediscovered my own love for the city through that. And from a filmic point of view, obviously, because the style of the film was a lot about restraint, the choice of locations was really important because it would tell a story about the character … It took a very, very long time finding this in-town studio that she lives in, which is more private and lived-in space than maybe some of the more representational places she goes through.
NL: There’s been much debate about how cinematography of late is lacking in color. With the substance of TÁR in mind, I’m wondering how you go about designing the darkness or starkness so that it would be interesting visually?
FH: Going back to our first exchange we had about the authenticity of space and how that relates to a form of immersive experience. If you basically say, “I want to follow somebody,” and I follow them in a way that I can sit literally in a car with somebody, and it’s a single take, then I can watch the people in the car as if I’m in it with them. That also dictates a certain naturalism where any kind of manipulation that would feel like a decision to potentially beautify, or to potentially desaturate, or to make these subtle changes that take a step away from a very precise naturalism, it immediately creates separation between me and the immersion, you know?
Hence, we never really planned on a precise color palette. It was more a holistic process by choosing certain locations, the change of day and night, and by shooting in the winter, which was an explicit choice. We waited, we started shooting in the summer, and we waited for a certain moment when we would be able to go outside. There were a lot of story-driven decisions that kind of accumulated to this look. But underneath everything is this constant urge to say authenticity of space and naturalism.
NL: I’m also wondering if there are certain sequences where you let the character dictate where the cameras are rather than the conventional other way around. In the Juilliard class sequence, for example, I feel Lydia is holding your camera, deciding where it goes, what it can do and the like. She’s literally in control.
FH: You completely understood what the process there was. For that scene, I think it’s roughly 11, 12 minutes long… and the script is as precise as the film; everything was in the script, and it was written as such, and it was probably 11 pages, and every word spoken there was in the script. It was very clear Todd seemed to have worked on this scene extensively.
When we broke it down, we came to say, roughly, about 35 setups if we had shot things separately. Different angles onto the stage. Reaction shots of the students. You wanted to be close to her at the piano. You needed to tell the story of the knee that agitates her. Then the entire conflict between her and the musical student. All these shots we had in mind… how would we break it down to do the story justice? And then the decision was taken, from the very start, where Todd adamantly said, “I want to do this in a single take.” Now what this means is we didn’t want to do a single take to show something off, but the [thought process] behind it was, “You have all these angles, but Cate drives the editorial process. She drives it herself.” That’s why I think you end up with exactly what you have said.
NL: I’m not the most musically inclined person, but I was absolutely in that classroom with her.
FH: That’s what I mean by being immersive. I’ve watched the film numerous times now, but I still find it astonishing that I actually think I’m on stage with Adam Gopnik and her. Like five minutes into it, I’m thinking, “I’m actually watching this interview with Lydia Tár! I’d just listened to all of her achievements!” It’s this idea of being the “immersive observer.”
NL: I noticed that a lot of scenes in the teaser trailer didn’t make it into the final cut, like a lavish event at a palace and Lydia touring the Holocaust Memorial?
FH: There’s a writer who really impressed me called Isaac Babel who wrote a collection of short stories called The Red Cavalry, and he used to say about his writing—he lived in the, I think, twenties—”A story is finished when not a single word can be cut out of it anymore.” There was a sense of compression that I felt Todd, and his editor, Monika Willi, were really working on. Not everything can be in the film, but we shot beautiful things!
But then that’s also taking us back to this idea of observation and authenticity. On this journey that I embarked on with TÁR, a lot of it was about restraint and really asking yourself, “Why do you do this? Why do we beautify? How do I start inflicting something onto the image that actually has nothing to do with the image, except that it’s my own taste? How do you really do the scene real justice?” And it was a very beautiful process because it has to do with Todd having a very high visual sensitivity. When you work alongside somebody like that, your own sense gets resharpened, you know?
NL: You had complete trust in Todd’s choices then?
FH: Yeah! I think he’s a true auteur. He wrote the script, produced, directed the film. As a cinematographer, the way I define it, in a situation like that, my first and foremost quality is to listen when you start working with somebody because he has taken the first leap onto the empty page, and that is the biggest leap to be taken. There was a great sense of bravery around his directorial approach. I wanted to find the right tone, especially the lighting. It’s something I think about a lot. What is the right tone? How do you really elevate a scene? What moods do you set subconsciously—and in this piece, there was such a variety of moods and such a responsibility that came with it? You know?
NL: On that note, how do we establish those elements, and be in tune with the desired realism mentioned earlier, for the more illusory scenes? One of the most haunting shots in TÁR for me is when we see Lydia having a nightmare, sleeping on a bed over the water and then waking up when a snake swims closer and closer…
FH: In my world, I think once you get an audience into this sphere where people are aware that they are able to observe, and that there’s time for them to observe, then they become far more aware of each element. The fact that you mentioned the snake, which, I remember, is tiny in relation to the size of the image! I am completely convinced the reason you were able to see that is because the film starts to operate in this realm of confidence without telling you exactly where to look, but that you will always know that there is something to look out for.
So the elevation comes from what I think is you creating a tension of observing and knowing that there’s something to be seen and something to be expected visually. Once you enter these more abstract spaces, you watch them very differently than if you had to watch them in a film that was constructed differently … Todd put the snake into this frame. It’s no chance, not haphazard. That’s the aim of the film.
NL: What would the presence of your work at the Oscars, or any award bodies, mean for you?
FH: I like to think of [Hungarian composer] Béla Bartók who supposedly has said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” … There’s one thing that makes it special in this circumstance: If I remember the shoot, I remember the constant conversations between Todd and I about precision and restraint, and about not forcing elements onto the frame that had nothing to do with the story. It was about holding back and trying to simplify, and that the simplification sometimes had gigantic technical ramifications. To do something simple does not necessarily mean it becomes technically simple. We had to go through crazy technical setups at times to create a simple frame, and to be recognized for that simplicity is, of course, a real honor. It’s like if you’re comparing an instrument to play a very simple piece very beautifully, and in that lies lots of musicality, and to be recognized for that, that would be a great honor.
NL: Thank you so much, Florian.
TÁR is currently in theaters and available on demand. The film’s home media release is set for January 16, 2023.