'Living the Light: Robby Muller': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
For Muller fans and cinema afficionados.

The life and archives of Dutch lenser Robby Muller are explored in this documentary helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Claire Pijman.

The late and great cinematographer Robby Muller, who died in July at age 78, left behind a large archive of personal footage and photos, which forms the basis for director Claire Pijman’s documentary Living the Light: Robby Muller. Famous for his use of and special attention given to light, Muller shot some of the most iconic films of directors as different as Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; The American Friend), Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down by Law, Ghost Dog), blending each director’s sensibility and requirements with his own distinct vision. 

But Pijman, a camera operator on Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club under Muller in an Amsterdam-shot sequence and herself a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, doesn’t seem interested in any kind of critical analysis of Muller's work or a biographical film that explores the life of the man behind all those iconic images in any depth. Instead, she opts for a sort of scrapbook narrative, composed of little moments and small insights that together create a kind of mosaic view of a complex man and artist. Living the Light will not necessarily make much sense to anyone unfamiliar with the job of a cinematographer and how it has evolved or the specific movies and directors that are discussed here, though the initiated will love this look behind the scenes, set to a twangy guitar score from Squrl (aka Jarmusch and Carter Logan). As such, this should appeal to cinematheques and specialized cinephilia sidebars like the Venice Classics section, where the doc premiered. 

“Several years ago, Robby was overtaken by an illness that made him lose his speech. Now his images speak for him” is a cutesy text projected on a table in the breezy and sunny location somewhere near the start of Living the Light. Thankfully, Pijman doesn’t include too much of this cloying type of commentary, instead letting the images actually speak for themselves most of the time. Throughout the doc, she includes moments Muller shot while on the road for film shoots, in hotels and at the homes of family and friends. His recurring obsession with light and reflections, for example in water, suggest how, in a way, Muller was always working. Or, perhaps, how there never really was a dividing line between his work and the rest of his life. 

Muller simply couldn’t stop looking through a camera, whether he was being paid to do so or not. It is the context that makes this clear: In any other household, for example, it would have been quite normal for a father and mother to barge into the bedroom of their preteen daughter with a camera in hand on the morning of her birthday, but in Muller’s case, his daughter’s “That’s mean!” uttered before ducking back under the covers seems to suggest more about him than about her. As an adult, she later explains that it finally became normal that her father wasn’t home very often and that she just got used to it, though there is no real sense of to what extent his family life and relationships were influenced by his decision to often work abroad and the fact that film shoots can take months.  

The near-constant and borderline-obsessive observation of the world around him through a lens, with Muller sometimes filming photographs or his answering machine — “This is David Lynch calling from Los Angeles!” — is perhaps the most interesting take-away. In a way, he could not have become anything but a cinematographer. It also slowly emerges that Muller was always more interested in the feelings and emotions of any scene in a film than in the technical aspects behind the shot, though one very detailed exploration of a “natural light” scene from Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly suggests Muller could be an obsessive technician as well, when required. 

Although Pijman doesn’t go through Muller’s filmography in strictly chronological terms, she doesn’t highlight the enormous contrast between Barfly’s highly technical lighting scheme and the cinematographer’s work on the pictures of Lars von Trier, for example, with their handheld cameras and impossibility to light things specifically for one shot. That said, even later Muller does admit that giving Dancer in the Dark star Catherine Deneuve “sloppy lighting” was kind of liberating because the story they were telling didn’t need pretty images. These more candid moments are quite rare in more polished, behind-the-scenes-type documentaries in which everyone is on their best behavior, but since most of what’s shown here was for private use, it is possible to hear him say such things as “The director is kind of weak” in a monologue he filmed for his mother from his New York hotel room in which he talks about his work and his weekend after having filmed a diluvial rainstorm through his window. 

There are also brief interviews with some actors and technicians and, of course, with Jarmusch, von Trier and Wenders. But the famous names' recollections are among the least interesting contributions, as they tend to be more anecdotal than really insightful. Time constraints might be an issue here as well, as all of those interviewed have just a few minutes to get their say amid the glut of material from personal archives and all the gorgeous, expertly chosen excerpts from some of the over 70 features on which Muller worked. Editor Katharina Wartena has stitched together all these short fragments in a free-associative, stream-of-consciousness kind of way. 

Jarmusch and Logan's attempt to aurally evoke the work and temperament of Muller — whom Jarmusch suggests could be quite moody at times — results in a lot of melancholy guitar strumming that’s atmospheric with a mournful edge.  

Production companies: Moondocs, Chromosom Film, Stichting Docu Shot
Director: Claire Pijman 
Producer: Carolijn Borgdorf 
Executive producer: Jorinde Soree 
Directors of photography: Robby Muller, Claire Pijman 
Editor: Katharina Wartena
Music: Squrl (Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan)
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Classics)
Sales: Wide House

In Dutch, German, English, French
86 minutes