Arri at the Revolution
How two cinematographers risked all with their camera.
Arriflex cameras have captured some of history's most dramatic moments. Vilmos Zsigmond and the late Laszlo Kovacs, lifelong friends who became two of the most influential cinematographers of their generation, began using Arriflex cameras while in film school in 1956 in Budapest, Hungary. At great danger to themselves, they used the cameras to document the Hungarian Revolution. "They were shooting with the ARRI running off a battery in a shopping bag; they would have been shot on sight if they were caught," says James Chressanthis, who wrote and directed the feature documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos. To reach safety, the cinematographers carried tens of thousands of feet of their film on a trek on foot across the border into Austria. The following year, after they sought political refuge in the U.S., their footage was aired on CBS by Walter Cronkite.
"In Hungary, all that I used was Arriflex," recalls Zsigmond. "When I came to the U.S., ARRI was not popular yet. They were shooting spaghetti Westerns [with ARRI cameras] in Italy. I wanted to use the same thing here. I shot many of my low-budget movies with my ARRI, and when I graduated to bigger movies, I still used ARRI."
Zsigmond, who went on to shoot Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Kovacs, whose credits include Easy Rider, left their mark on the American New Wave of the late '60s and early '70s. "Arriflex and Eclair were the main cameras of the New Wave," explains Chressanthis (who is using the ARRI Alexa as director of photography on Lifetime's The Client List). "They also came into use for sports and news photography. They were lightweight and mobile."
Shooting Peter Fonda's 1971 Western The Hired Hand, Zsigmond remembers: "I had to climb up a windmill. It was easy to carry a small ARRI." And on the 1965 feature Summer Children, he recalls: "I had to climb up the mast of a sailboat, 50 feet high. Luckily, I had an assistant who climbed up the mast like a monkey. We did that incredible shot, shooting face-down into the sailboat. I don't think that is something any other camera in those days could have done."