Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal is best known for his collaborations with countryman Paweł Pawlikowski; for both 2014's Ida and 2018's Cold War, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Żal also shot DK and Hugh Welchman's Oscar-nominated Loving Vincent (2017) and Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). However, he had to forget everything he had learned when it came to Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama, The Zone of Interest.
"We wanted to just be as objective as possible," he explains. "I had to forget completely all the tricks you are carrying with you as a cinematographer, and all your knowledge and everything you were taught in your career, to just completely forget about that and serve this [film], with no influence of Łukasz Żal."
Żal fell in love with cinema at a young age and studied photography at the Łódź Film School in Poland. He was initially set to be the camera operator on Ida, but when Pawlikowski's regular cinematographer, Ryszard Lenczewski, became ill during the shoot, Żal made his feature debut as DP. The pair earned the inaugural Spotlight award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
"What I'm trying to do is as a cinematographer is to translate something which is hard to be say," he explains. "I try to immerse the viewer in this world, in these emotions, to capture moments, capture weather, capture atmosphere, capture what actor feels, just to add a bit with the camera and with a composition that helps the story to say what is untold."
Below, Żal shares with A.frame five of the films that most inspire him. "It's changing all the time, and it's quite hard to choose just five films because there are so many that had such a huge impact on me and impacted me at different moments of my life."
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky | Cinematography by: Georgy Rerberg
One of the most important films for me is Tarkovsky's Mirror. I'm always coming back to that film looking for inspiration. What is most important for me in cinema and what I'm looking for in a film is meditation about life. It doesn't have to be this typical three-act story that you tell in a certain way. And what I love about Mirror is it's a mixture of memories, of emotions, of fears, of doubts, and it doesn't have a clear structure. It's like a dream.
I love Tarkovsky because he is able to capture these moments, what we feel, our fears, our joys. He is telling us about the human condition. Visually, I remember the first time I watched the moment at the end of the trees moving and thinking, 'Wow, this is cinema. This is something I would love to touch.' I think that's my duty as a DP, to add something where you can feel that you are there and feel what the character feels.
Directed by: Miloš Forman | Cinematography by: Miroslav Ondříček
The Firemen's Ball is another film I sometimes watch when I'm prepping. I love in a cinema when you create the structure and you create a world, but you can still move in that world in a documentary way, in terms of capturing the absurdity of human life, that sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's stupid, sometimes it's crazy.
I hate when I think things are staged or when I can see what camera is going to do, so I love Miloš Forman's absurd documentary-approach to reality. What I'm interested in is [the] unexpected. The first films I did were documentaries, and I still like to work like that. The point is to be prepared as much as possible, but then when you come to the set, you're open to this what is happening. You have to be present all the time. It's not like you can do a shot and then you can relax. You need to be digging, because there's always things happening. Even just observing a human face, you can capture something real. I think in The Zone of Interest but also in Paweł Pawlikowski's films, we were always trying to work in this documentary way, looking for truth.
Directed by: Aleksey German | Cinematography by: Valeri Fedosov
My Friend Ivan Lapshin is another Russian film. I worked with Aleksey German's son, Aleksey German Jr. [on 2018's Dovlatov], but what I love about Russian cinema is the chaos of reality. This film made a huge impact on me because the camera is unpredictable. There's so much chaos in reality, and you feel like you are watching reality. You feel like you're not watching a film, but you are watching a piece of life.
Basically, I hate when I look at film which looks like a film. Film is a piece of art, and it doesn't have to be the same form. It doesn't have to have the same recipe. It doesn't have to put the same ingredients. We need to cross boundaries. We should experiment. Capturing reality is what's most important, and I think Aleksey German did that in an amazing way and with so much of chaos. I love chaos. I think chaos is amazing, and you watch this chaos, and then from this chaos something appears, but you don't know what will happen. That sort of chaos should happen on every layer on a film, because that's what our lives look like. So, I'm really trying to transfer that to the cinema and films I do.
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematography by: Raoul Coutard
This film was shown to me for the first time by Pawel Pawlikowski when we were shooting Ida. I love those long shots and sometimes very unexpected compositions. There are those long conversations when you don't see the reverse shot; you just see the back of the people. The tableaus in the film are beautiful and had a huge impact on me — how you can connect images and not have a wide shot and close-ups but just putting together three images where they don't have any common shot. But they tell about a bigger truth. It shows that when you choose tableaus and compositions and just show an excerpt of reality, you can speak about the entire reality. Sometimes showing less or choosing a little piece of the world, you can speak about something much, much bigger, which is beyond the frame. I love that film a lot for that reason.
Directed by: Federico Fellini | Cinematography by: Gianni Di Venanzo
8½ is a classic. If you're a director or cinematographer or any kind of artist making a film, I think you struggle in a similar way to [Marcello Mastroianni's character] and wonder every time if your talent will work this time, or maybe not. I'm not the director, but I think it's very personal for me. Approaching every film, I feel the same doubts of if I will find a way to tell this story, if my talent will work the same way it worked before. But also, I love 8½ for those beautiful long shots where the camera is moving and things are happening. It's totally different from the films I talked about, but I also love that style. I love this movie.