In 2017, the Ministry of Culture offered cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman to honor him by making him “Knight of the National Order of Merit.” Being offered that so-evocatively named reward pleased the man no end…but he never finished filling the proper documents and never went to fetch it. Even today, Guillaume Schiffman considers his only “merit” was just being born, so serendipitous was the path that led to his birth. And so strewn with unlikely happenstances that filmmaker and coincidence-guru Claude Lelouch, jubilant at the richness of that story, thought one day, perhaps, he could make a film about it.
Over a hundred years ago, in 1917, his Ukrainian grandparents flee the October Revolution. They go through Germany… just as Hitler is surreptitiously then gradually gaining power. To escape the pogroms, they flee further west, to the United States, forsaking their original last name and adopting “Schiffman” – “Boatman” in German.
In the Bronx, a borough of New York City, his grandfather is a tailor and his clientele counts an inordinate number of Brooklyn’s Jewish gangsters. His son, Philip Schiffman, wants to become a painter but is forced to join the US Air Force in 1941 and go fight in the Philippines. At the end of the war, on his way back to the United States, Philip’s plane explodes mid-flight. He is the only survivor, albeit in bad shape. As gangrene is threatening his leg, he begs the surgeon to try anything to keep it. The operation is such a success that the surgeon becomes a celebrity in that field…and that Philip Schiffman returns to Chicago – on both legs – and embarks on art studies.
Now on to his mother’s side. Her Polish-born grandparents are leather workers in Paris when the Second World War erupts. They have seven children and decide to flee to the free zone, thereby, hopefully, sheltering their families. The head of the family decides to go scouting the south of France with his three eldest and his secretary, leaving his wife and their four youngest children in Paris. At the 11th hour, thanks to her mother’s insistence, little Suzanne is made part of the trip. That will save her life, the cost being never to see her mother and three siblings again, as they will all be victims of the Shoah. Nobody will know what happened exactly to them and Suzanne will never talk about it.
In 1946, Suzanne, then 18, happens to be in Rimini, Italy. As luck would have it, so does pilot Philip Schiffman, sent there by the US Air Force. They fall in love, then go their separate ways and lose touch. Two years later – yes, luck can strike twice – they bump into each other in Chicago; Suzanne is then a student in sociology and Philip a future painter. At the time, World War 2 is (almost) a faint memory and most people are eager to forget it. Suzanne and Philip fall in love again and rush off to Mexico to get married. Were that a Claude Lelouch film, this would probably be the final scene – with the music beginning adagiettoas the newlyweds kiss and spinning crescendoas the camera rises in the sky and ‘’THE END’’ appears on the screen.
But there is a rest to the story and it is well known – by film buffs at least, since Suzanne Schiffman is to become a close collaborator to all the New Wave directors, from Eric Rohmer to Jacques Rivette through Jean-Luc Godard and, especially, François Truffaut whose films she collaborated on from 1960 to her death in 1984, first as a script supervisor, then assistant director and finally screenwriter.
Since neither his father, entirely focused on his painting, nor his mother, totally dedicated to cinema, really takes care of him, young Guillaume is unusually – and deliciously – free: a happy and restless dunce who repeats school year after school year, switches schools four times in a row and conscientiously fails to pass his baccalaureate without being accountable to anyone. He spends all his summer vacations on movie sets and all his days off at his American father’s studio, watching him work to the sound of jazz music. Guillaume and his brother live with their parents in Paris, right next to the Studio Action, a movie theatre where Guillaume will see a phenomenal number of old American films.
His decision, therefore, to go directly into the film industry as a grip instead of stubbornly pursing his studies surprises no one. He catches the attention of a young cinematographer, Dominique Chapuis, who quickly takes him under his wing and “knights” him second assistant camera.
Actually, the desire to become a cinematographer had been planted a decade before, and for prosaic reasons. As teenager Guillaume is visiting the set of François Truffaut’s L’Argent de Poche (“Pocket Money”), he watches, fascinated, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn riding his Harley Davidson in a checkered shirt and sheepskin jacket (oh, the ‘70s!) and – most importantly – being swarmed by a bevy of pretty girls.
Being an assistant camera, he discovers that technique does not interest him at all. He even considers himself a “catastrophic” second assistant (even though his stint as such lasted six years!), saved only by his charm and energy that allowed him to keep his position. An economic necessity since, at 23, he already fathered a little girl. If you refer to one of the main characters in the Asterixcomic book series, you could say that, like Obelix, infant Guillaume Schiffman fell into a cauldron full of magic potion (cinema, of course) and nothing was to stop him. On a film Jacques Rouffio is directing, Guillaume, a “mere” second assistant camera (lower case), dares “suggest” a tracking shot to the Director (capital D). Instead of shooing him away, Rouffio takes up his suggestion…and, in return, strongly “suggests” that Schiffman direct his own short film.
Never one to resist a challenge, Guillaume complies and, despite his maternal atavism, realizes (and admits) that directing is not for him. When he becomes first assistant camera on two feature films, once again, he finds that the heavy responsibilities of a focus pullergive him the jitters.
To make ends meet, he works on commercials – a milieu in which being fluent in English is an asset – and even offers himself as stage manager to go location scouting in Botswana and find places where buffaloes roam. Back in France, his presentation is so convincing that the commercial director – Claude Miller – puts him in charge of the second camera. His debut as cinematographer.
He then hesitates to accept the offer of lighting a short film in black-and-white, for he still, in the back of his mind, worries he might not be up to it. So he turns to Francois Truffaut’s legendary cinematographer, Nestor Almendros. Almendros’s “oracle” is straight and blunt: “Your father is a painter, your mother is smart and you have beautiful eyes. Go for it!” Which he does – and soon after, he is, for the very first time, offered to D.P. a feature film for television.
Directors as diverse as Claude Miller, Albert Dupontel, Johann Sfar or Emmanuelle Bercot start calling him out. They appreciate his incredible plasticity and the flexibility of his light designs to each and all styles. “Directors have a vision and I like to append myself to their imaginary world.” Yet, paradoxically, before principal photography is to begin, Guillaume Schiffman admits to being both bold -“I just go for it, never have a doubt”- and apprehensive: “I always feel like I’m going to find myself naked in front of the teachers without my notebooks”.
In 2001, he meets director Michel Hazanavicius, also an absolute fan of American cinema, and their duet does wonders on films adored by the public: cult movies like the two OSS117and the surprising runaway hit The Artist,in black-and-white, which went around the world and garnered every award imaginable. Yet, despite his Oscar nomination and his Caesar, Guillaume Schiffman recognizes – with the modesty of the former dunce – that The Artistwas not the most complicated film he ever had to make. “All I had to do”, he says, “was hire an old gaffer and use old projectors.
Indeed, films like Vanessa Filho’s Gueule d’ange(“Angel Face”), starring Marion Cottillard, or Mathieu Delaporte’s and Alexandre de la Patellière’s Le Meilleur reste à venir (“The Best Is Yet to Come”?), starring Fabrice Luchini and Patrick Bruel, seem to him less easy to light than The Artist, even if, as usual, he used Summilux-C lenses. For Guillaume Schiffman fell in love with those lenses. He likes “the flare, the soft rendering of the skin, the brilliance”, and can even name the (rare) films on which he was forced to “be unfaithful” to them. “I now practically never wonder which lenses I’m going to use. The Summilux-Cs give me the desire to create images and allow me to make the ones I like.”
Will Guillaume Schiffman finally accept to receive the Order of Merit and finish filling up the proper documents? Possibly. Probably. Were it only to tell Nestor Almendros and Dominique Chapuis, who championed him in his early days, that they were right.
Written by Ariane Damain Vergallo