In setting the frame for the Cold War Poland thriller “Operation Hyacinth” – which plays in the Polish Films Competition section of this week’s EnergaCamerimage Film Festival – cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski says he found himself in a race against time.
The DP, who’s filmed dark stories in critical successes such as “Corpus Christi” and “Hatred,” is not referring to the constraints of the low-budget film’s 27-day shoot when he says he felt his location options were fading fast.
Instead, Sobocinski says, he was shocked to learn that some 90% of the Warsaw locations that looked right for a communist-era setting during his 2014 film “Gods” have now been either torn down or developed into modern facilities.
He and director Piotr Domalewski wanted as many authentic backgrounds as possible for their fact-based story of a secret police operation targeting gay men, Sobocinski says. What’s more, to help convey the sense of being trapped as the two detectives are pushed to make a quick murder conviction regardless of the facts, he says, “We intentionally chose really tiny locations. The claustrophobia was the main idea.”
Often, the ceilings and walls seem to be closing in on the detective Robert, a man with many secrets – and whose life is at substantial risk if it gets out he may have more than a professional interest in the 80s Polish gay scene.
In dealing with the two main plots of “Hyacinth,” one the criminal investigation and the other the personal journey of the Citizens’ Militia officer leading the murder inquiry, “finding out about your own sexuality,” Sobocinski says he wanted to build tension.
“We came up with the idea to make the film with completely static shots, a lock-off camera just to enable the audience to watch closely all the emotions that Robert is facing. To be able to focus and not have the distraction that comes from camera movement.”
What’s more, says Sobocinski, “The static camera is kind of a jail and locks our viewer within the frame – he can’t escape.” Meanwhile Robert “has to face his own feelings, has to see what he’s up against.”
Shooting this way is surprisingly challenging, says the DP, because of several factors: Actors must hit their marks precisely when moving into the shot and every detail of the background must be designed and lit. A moving camera, by contrast, can keep up with actors wherever they are and can hide much of the background.
Sobocinski also originally chose a 4:3 aspect ratio, shooting with a Panavision Primo Artiste spherical lens, which “has a vintage softness to it” to further create the effect of being boxed in. The film’s opening scene, in which a foot chase spills out of an imposing pillared hallway, was set there just to fit this format, the DP says.
This frame shape also allows for bigger close-ups without the need to show the area surrounding an actor on both sides, he adds. But one day before production began, producers decided to go with a wider 2.66:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, the DP says, which forced the crew to scramble.
“We had to scout again and find some new locations,” Sobocinski says. But the cramped quarters of the actors’ world remained and worked well, he says – even if “literally I ended up shooting from the cupboards.”
Sobocinski says he was drawn to “Hyacinth” by the script – an element that’s crucial for him in taking on projects – because it deals with a little-known chapter of 1980s Poland and the police state’s crackdown on the gay community.
A number of scenes transpire at a meeting place known as the Chalet, he says, adding, “That was a real thing and a real place.” The actual site is long gone (“It’s now surrounded by skyscrapers”) so had to be recreated – but the filmmakers were able to find locations where little has changed over the decades.
Adding to the feeling of claustrophobia, the color palette of “Hyacinth” at times almost gives viewers the feeling the film is nicotine-stained. At other times, scenes are graded to feel cold and blue, he says.
And, despite the wider format, Sobocinski says, “What I’m happy about is we still managed to sell the claustrophobia.”
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