P.O.V. No.15

An interview with Henning Bendtsen
On life in films and working with Carl Th. Dreyer

Nikolaj B. Feifer

Henning Bendtsen, born in Copenhagen in 1925, has shot about 90 shorts and 57 feature length films, including Carl Th. Dreyer's Ordet and Gertrud, and Lars von Trier's Europa. His many awards include two "Bodil" statuettes and a "Robert." Co-founder of the Danish Cinematographers' Society in 1954, he is now retired and lives in Rødovre.

How did you first get started in cinematography?

From the time I was a child, I wanted to be a cinematographer. This wasn't at all my family's idea. My father was an associate professor of German, and when I told him I wanted to go into filmmaking, he didn't understand at all, having been to the cinema himself only once or twice.
There was no need to waste time on going to high school, because I knew what I wanted. When I told my father, he agreed, but on one condition: that I get some sort of diploma, certifying what I had learned. The only trouble was that there wasn't any education in cinematography as such, so instead I went to a photo school to learn the basics of the craft… I must have been around 15 or 16 at the time.
The theoretical teaching was okay, but I didn't learn much of a practical nature during my apprenticeship with a "practice company." Their biggest account was with a plumbing manufacturer, so the pictures I got to shoot weren't very challenging […] We spent most of our days shooting toilets, morning and afternoon. Not very exciting.
So I had to make my own darkroom at home. We had a big apartment, and that's where I learned for example how to make portraits, which I obviously couldn't learn at the practice company.
I was also very active in a photographic society, where I attended lectures and slide shows. They had their own darkroom, and since we really wanted to learn, wanted to be the best, we often stayed there all night, experimenting with our cameras and developing our pictures. Then when dawn came, we just went straight to work at the practice company.
I've often thought about why it was that I wanted to become a cinematographer, and not learn one of the many other jobs in the film industry. But composing pictures just seemed to be what I wanted more than anything else; an urge I was born with... Somebody must have chosen it for me. And for a reason. It's the only thing I ever wanted, and that's why I'm so very happy and satisfied today, because I've succeeded in this.
I never dreamt that all these prizes existed. But it was the milieu, the people (that attracted me). No two assignments are alike, even if the shoot takes place in the same studio. There are new challenges every day, new actors and new scenes. Everything is always new, and that's what I found so fascinating.

What's the first thing you consider when you start lighting a set?

The key light, definitely, always the key light. I think it's important, well I'd say half my job is creating a calmness and a balance in the picture.
The simplest to do is a portrait, but what's exciting about shooting movies is that much like an architect, you can get to design a space where people live.
I've often tried shooting a scene where the dialogue isn't what counts the most, and then you have to establish the environment, say the living room, very precisely. Because all rooms tell the story of whoever lives there, what kind of family it is. And then you have to find the things that fascinate you, and try to emphasize them. I find that very important, and I enjoy that when I occasionally see a movie now. In a feature length film, it isn't always the dialogue that holds our interest. I find it pleasing when the room helps everything come alive, and helps your perception of the people there.
With both the ceiling and the fourth wall always missing on a film set, (the challenge is) to find the things to emphasize with what's left, without allowing these things to becoming to domineering, to find a balance between the people and the room.

Do you still find that cinematographers today can create rooms like that?

Oh yes, definitely. They're very good. Just think about the equipment we had back then. Shot in black and white, and with extreme amounts of light, due to the slow film stock. Sometimes we had to use ten times the amount of light used today to light a room.
They can even shoot a scene today with a street lamp as the only source of light. Totally unthinkable when I started out.

When did you first meet Carl Th. Dreyer?

What happened was that Dreyer was going to make Ordet (The Word), which was produced in 1954, although it is listed as a 1955 production. And I think that by that time, I was working at Palladium[1] and had been Director of Photography on three or four movies, and was not that experienced.
And, well I don't know how it came about, but when it was announced that Dreyer was going to produce Ordet at Palladium, there was talk of using me, at least that's what Dreyer was offered. However, another cinematographer, Jørgen Myttschou, was also asked if he would be interested, if Dreyer should ask for him. It ended up with an agreement that Jørgen and I should each do a test for Dreyer, who would pick one of us to shoot the movie.
Meanwhile, Palladium got in touch with an American company and got a deal to produce the first Danish feature in color. I was picked to shoot that that, Age of Tomorrow (1954), which ended up running only two days in the movie theatres. That, of course, was a big challenge for me. I was only around 27 or 28 at the time. For instance we couldn't even develop color film in Denmark in those days, so every night the new footage we took was flown to England. Each day we worked until very late, and afterwards I stayed to make sure that the reels of film were properly packed for the plane trip.
I was still supposed to do the test for Dreyer but due to the immense workload of the color feature, I had to say to Palladium that I didn't see how I could possibly do any kind of test. I was supposed to do the test at night, and for two or three nights Dreyer waited up for me to finish the packaging of the undeveloped reels, but each time I had to say I couldn't go through with the test.
Although I had given up on it, my contract at Palladium called for me to start right away on a new feature after the present one was finished, so I ended up having to shoot Ordet anyway, because it was their next film.
We started shooting, but after the first couple days I got extremely sick and was taken to the hospital with appendicitis. They operated during the night and the next day Dreyer sent over flowers. He said he'd seen the rushes and that he was very pleased.
We became very close very quickly, bonding very fast. I had a car back then, and each morning I picked Dreyer up in Hellerup where he lived. He didn't have a car, was very poor you know. He hadn't worked much since his return from France. Made Vredens Dag/Day of Wrath (1943) and a single short, but otherwise nothing. [2]
So I always picked him up, and during our trips we talked about his work in France, and his career in general.
After the filming was over, he said that he wanted to show his appreciation to me for a very successful collaboration. He had some very fine shoes, a bit small for him, and being the very shy man that he was, he didn't care to go back to the store with them. So he gave them to me, these very expensive Bally shoes, and that was in a way the confirmation of our friendship, you might say.

What was it like shooting Gertrud[3]?

I think it was Technicolor that wanted Dreyer to make Gertrud at Palladium, to see if he had gotten too old. He must have been around 75, but he didn't seem old to me; seemed very fresh actually.
When we shot Ordet, Dreyer was very impressed with my tracking shots, with how long I could make them last. I think for Dreyer it was a very interesting technical development, the whole dolly track thing, because if you compare Ordet or Gertrud with for example Joan of Arc, you realize that that picture consists almost entirely of close ups.
So in Gertrud, we used a lot of tracking shots. Because the script wasn't divided into scenes, but more like one unbroken string of action… In that respect, I remember very clearly how I often had to politely make him aware that we were running out of film, after shooting for 11 minutes which was the maximum reel length.
But it was a very nice way of working… because it meant we would do fewer takes and as a result could usually finish earlier than expected. So we only did one take per day. We rehearsed in the morning, and then everybody took a lunch break, after which we could come back and finish shooting. Even the producer was happy because we used considerably less film than usual.
While filming Gertrud, there was a big problem one time with a tracking shot. We had to do a long take, and because of all the various positions from which the actors were supposed to say their lines, I couldn't put the fill light anywhere. The fill light is your secondary light, the light you use to soften up the edges created by the key light. Now I'd been in France and remembered how they shot it down there, or maybe I could tell by watching French movies. They simply put this 2 kw light on top of the camera, which was possible because the camera was in a square case. [4] Then the gaffer[5] would have a resistance device to regulate the brightness of the light, depending on how far from the lens the actors would be. That was one hell of a job, because sometimes we would have as many as 20 or 30 camera positions in one take, so he would have to be very accurate.
Oh, and after we finished shooting Gertrud, Dreyer came up to me again and said almost the same thing he had when we finished Ordet. He had this very fine tuxedo, and he had never really worn it. So if I could use it, it was mine to have. [6]

How do you feel about the Danish cinema of today?

Well this will be a very short reply, because I don't really keep up with the new work. It's not at all because of the Danish films, I just don't really feel like seeing movies anymore. Maybe it's because I never wanted to direct, because I always knew that cinematography was my field.
Only rarely do I go to the movies. The last film I saw was En Kort En Lang (Shake It, 2001). A nice picture, but it didn't much appeal to me. But it's very exciting that people have started going to the movies again. That boom is fantastic.
But I often go with my wife to the local mall, and it's not just to hold her hand. It's to look at faces, for the excitement of seeing the landscapes, the stories in them. That never stops being interesting.

This interview was conducted on March 17, 2002 at the home of Henning Bendtsen in Rødovre, outside Copenhagen.

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1 Danish film production company founded in 1919, and with studio facilities in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen, until 1970. The company produced its last picture in 1976

2 Dreyer had actually made seven shorts, mostly documentaries, and an additional feature besides Day of Wrath, called Two People (Sweden, 1945).

3 Shot in 1964, this was to be Dreyer's last film. He died on 20 March 1968 in Copenhagen.

4 Also know as a blimp. "A soundproof housing in which a camera is placed to prevent the noise of its mechanism from being picked up by the microphone during sound recording." The Film Encyclopedia, Ephraim Katz (Harper Perennial, 1997).

5 Chief electrician.

6 Both the tuxedo and the Bally shoes now belong to Lars von Trier. They were given to him by Bendtsen as a recognition of their collaboration on Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991). Europa/a.k.a. Zentropa, was the last feature on which Bendtsen worked as a cinematographer, and he retired shortly after its completion.

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