Anton Corbijn: Dutch Master

9 minute read

For a guy who has spent much of his career working with professional charm machines in the entertainment industry, Anton Corbijn sure has a downcast face. His eyebrows drag his forehead down to meet his bristled jaw, and he wears the expression of a midcareer lighthouse keeper, one who has seen a lot of shipwrecks and is expecting more.

Right now Corbijn (rhymes with more pain) is dealing with wreckage of a more human sort, as the director of A Most Wanted Man, the last movie Philip Seymour Hoffman completed before dying of a heroin overdose in his Greenwich Village apartment on Feb. 2. The film has other stars, including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright, but Hoffman is the movie’s lead character and its heart and brains. And it’s Hoffman everyone wants to talk about–so Corbijn’s lighthouse-keeper face is coming in handy.

The effectiveness of A Most Wanted Man, a spy thriller based on a John le Carré novel, was always going to depend on a ballooning sense of trepidation. But with Hoffman’s death, the film has a higher bar to clear: the performances, Corbijn’s methodical pacing and Andrew Bovell’s script have to provoke so much anxiety about the fate of the characters that viewers stop remembering the fate of the actor.

That’s particularly tricky for this film, which doesn’t make it easy to forget anything about Hoffman. His character is Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence operative stationed in Hamburg, a city now under intense scrutiny from the intelligence community as the place where the 9/11 hijackers conspired. Bachmann is attempting to catch a high-level terrorist using a precarious human ladder of unwilling or unknowing participants, all of whom need him in some way. It’s painfully obvious that Bachmann is in too deep, cares too much and is dealing with forces he may not be able to surmount. It’s also obvious that few can keep up with his tradecraft. All these things are sharply reminiscent of Hoffman.

In a bitter irony, this is the first feature Corbijn has directed in which the lead character does not die. Control (2007), his first movie–the one that catapulted him from making photographs and music videos to directing feature films–followed Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who committed suicide on the eve of the British band’s American tour in May 1980. The American (2010) recounted the demise of a hit man played by George Clooney. Corbijn is currently finishing a movie based on an episode in the life of James Dean, who’s more famous for dying than for anything else.

Certainly the director, whose father was a parson in the Dutch Reformed Church, heard plenty as a child about death and what lay beyond it. His parents, he says, “were obsessed with the afterlife.” But having been raised partly on a tiny island off the Dutch coast, he also grew up with a deep understanding of isolation.

“All these stories [I’ve filmed] are about loneliness,” says Corbijn in an interview via Skype. “I don’t think I realized it until the third film.” He must not have been paying attention. Even in his earliest work, like the stark black-and-white photo of U2 in the desert that became the cover of the band’s Joshua Tree album, his affection for the desolate is apparent. His music videos are redolent of it too; in one of them (“Bring on the Dancing Horses” by Echo & the Bunnymen), a man spends much of the song stuck inside a unicorn’s head.

“I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to make films about loners. I’m just drawn to that romantic idea. It always appealed to me–a man alone, how he copes with stuff,” says Corbijn. “You go through life alone, despite all your friendships and relationships. You’re going to be left on your own. ”

Above the Fray

Corbijn’s Loners aren’t just isolated by circumstance. They are also in lighthouses of ability, alone because their level of skill, whether as singers or hit men or spies, is higher than that of those around them. “Perhaps incredibly gifted people find themselves in a more lonely place, somehow,” says Corbijn. “You might not be able to share with other people to the degree you’d like to, because it’s beyond other people’s perception.” He can’t help but talk about Hoffman in this regard. “He hated what he was good at. It tormented him. I think he wanted to be so good, but it was such a difficult place, I guess, to get to. It had to all come from the inside.”

In a book he made about the film shoot, Corbijn documents one disagreement he had with his star. They did a scene Hoffman felt he was not prepared for; Hoffman accused the director later of forcing him “to do sh-t work.” But it wasn’t a typical exchange. “The great thing with Philip is that he was O.K. to talk about it and explain himself,” says Corbijn. “We knew where we stood.”

Indeed, while Hoffman perfectly captures the shambolic, haunted look of the spy le Carré created, Corbijn says the actor was not like that all the time. “He was fun to be with,” he says. “During editing when he was sitting next to me, I’d look at him and think, It’s not possible–this is absolutely not the guy onscreen.” He does recall with regret that Hoffman didn’t look that well. “Only when I look back now I see that he was actually more disheveled than I realized. I just thought it was the way he operated.”

Legend Maker

Corbijn’s success as a photographer, he says, arose from his handicaps: “I can only photograph in a certain way.” He’s most famous for his portraits of stars, nearly always in black and white, nearly always alone, nearly always looking grittily cool: David Bowie in a loincloth, Bono in an undershirt and Clint Eastwood frowning and pointing at the camera, his blurred fingers obscuring his mouth. “I make mistakes all the time, and I have the courage to let them be.”

In many ways, Corbijn’s movies are like still photographs. They’re filled with stationary landscapes in which some slight motion is only just detectable, like distant ships on the sea. He’s fond of the shot of one person, alone in a room, thinking, only his subject’s eyes or a cigarette suggesting any activity. A couple appear in a distant, lit window, their silhouettes briefly ascending stairs. A man’s head appears over the top of a wall, behind a yard of parked cars. The effect is seductive but foreboding, full of small, unnoticed activities that may or may not portend a tragic event. Corbijn’s a miniaturist of anxiety, the Dutch master of dread.

“He likes a formal frame,” says Dafoe, who plays a shadowy banker in A Most Wanted Man. “He likes to compose a shot and then doesn’t move the camera a lot.” Dafoe met Corbijn in the director’s other line of work, when he came to shoot him at a theater in Manhattan. Corbijn, who came alone, asked Dafoe to go for a walk, and when he found a textured wall he liked, he told the actor to stand in front of it and take off his shirt. “He shot off about 25 frames, and he was done,” says Dafoe. “It was so fast. He has a very strong aesthetic and a very developed idea of what’s beautiful.”

It wasn’t just beauty that influenced Corbijn’s decision to shoot his movie in the fall. “9/11 was when the world turned from summer to autumn. I wanted to have that autumnal vibe in the film,” says Corbijn, who sees calamity on the horizon as a result of what he considers to be heavy-handed reactions to the threat of terrorism. “The story deals with the world we live in now. Everything polarizes so quickly. We’ve lost the gray tones.”

As in his art, in his worldview he’s an advocate for the idea that smaller, more deliberative actions have a bigger impact. It’s not surprising, then, that the U.S. often plays a dark role in his plots and is the blunt instrument in this one. “I think there’s definitely a discussion that should be held about the wisdom of some of the responses the U.S. has made to things that have happened,” he says. “I love coming to America. There’s some incredible, clever minds. But as an example of a great democracy, it could be better.”

It’s not just the subject matter that makes Corbijn feel an uncomfortably heavy responsibility to his new film. It’s also because it’s Hoffman’s legacy. “The film gains a different kind of weight, not one that I’m very happy with,” says the filmmaker, with an uncharacteristic break in his reserve. “It’s very difficult to keep saying how amazing he is because I’m the director–it sounds like sales talk. He was such a great guy that I feel the movie needs to be noticed.” He starts to elaborate but can’t, because he’s choking up. “Sorry. I don’t want to make it sound heavy. It’s a difficult situation. I’d much rather be doing these interviews with him.” Corbijn, the son of a preacher, helped many stars along the path to a kind of immortality. For Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is the last step.

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