Planer, Franz

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Cinematographer. Nationality: Czech. Born: Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), 29 March 1894; used the name Frank Planer in Hollywood. Education: Trained as photographer in Vienna. Career: 1910s—newsreel and still photographer, in Vienna and Paris; 1920s and 1930s—worked in German films for Emelka Company, Munich; after 1937—in Hollywood. Died: 10 January 1963.

Films as Cinematographer:


Der Todesritt in Riesenrad


Der Klosterjäger (Osten?); Der Ochsenkrieg (Osten)


Der Brunnen des Wahnsinns (Ostermayr); Die Nacht der Einbrecher (Krafft); Die Trommeln Asiens (Krafft); Die Trutze von Trutzberg (Ostermayr)


Der Favorit der Königin (Seitz); Um Liebe und Thron (Osten); Das schwarze Gesicht (Osten)


Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs (The Grand Duke's Finances) (Murnau) (co); Gehetzte Menschen (Schönfelder); Schicksal (Basch)


Finale der Liebe (Basch); Der Mann seiner Frau (Basch)


Funfuhrtee in zerin (Morel-Molander); Der Sohn des Hannibal (Basch)


Die Achtzehnjährigen (Noa); Die Ausgestossenen (Berger); Einbruch (Osten); Das Frauenhaus von Rio (Steinhoff); Glanz und Elend der Kurtisanen (Noa); Der grosse Unbekannte (Noa); Die Pflicht zu schweigen (Wilhelm); Wie heirate ich meinen Chef (Schall); Alraune (Mandrake; Unholy Love; A Daughter of Destiny) (Galeen)


Heut' spielt der Strauss (Wiene); Die Rothausgasse (Oswald); Weib in Flammen (Reichmann); Wolga-Wolga! (Toujansky)


Die Flucht vor der Liebe (Behrendt); Frauen am Abgrund (Jacoby); Die Liebe der Brüder Rott (Waschneck); Der Narr seiner Liebe (Tschechowa); Stud. Chem. Helene Willfüer (Sauer)


Die Drei von der Tankstelle (Thiele); Hans in allen Gassen (Froelich); Heute Nacht—Eventuell (Emo); Der Sohn der weissen Berge (Bonnard); Zapfenstreich am Rhein (Speyer); Le Chemin du paradis (de Vaucorbeil—French version of Thiele's Die Drei von der Tankstelle ); La Folle Aventure (Antoine—French version of Froelich's Hans in allen Gassen)


Der Herr Bürovorsteher (Behrendt); Der Herzog von Reichstadt (Tourjansky); Nie wieder Liebe (Litvak); Sein Scheidungsgrund (Zeisler); L'Aiglon (Tourjansky); Der Storch streikt (Emo); Calais-Douvre (Boyer—French version of Litvak's Nie weider Liebe )


Der Prinz von Arkadien (Hartl); Das erste Recht des Kindes (Wendhausen); Die Gräfin von Monte Cristo (Hartl); Der schwarze Husar (Lamprecht); Teilnehmer antwortet nicht (Katscher and Sorkin); Eine Stadt steht Kopf (Gründgens); Le Chant du marin (Gallone)


Der Choral von Leuthen (Froelich); Ihre Durchlaucht, die Verkäuferin (Hartl); Liebelei (Ophüls); Leise flehen meine Lieder (Unfinished Symphony) (Forst); Caprice de Princesse (Clouzot—French version of Hartl's Ihre Durchlaucht, die Verkäuferin ); La Garrison amoureuse (de Vaucorbeil)


Maskerade (Masquerade in Vienna) (Forst); So endete eine Liebe (Hartl); Les Nuits moscovites (Moscow Nights) (Granowsky); The Dictator (The Love Affair of a Dictator; Loves of a Dictator) (Saville); Dactylo se marie (Pujol and May)


Casta Diva (The Divine Spark) (Gallone)


Tarass Boulba (Granowsky); The Beloved Vagabond (Bernhardt); Im Sonneschein (Opernring; Thank You Madame) (Gallone); Premiere (Von Bolvary); Ave Maria (Ophüls—short); La Valse brillante (Ophüls—short)


Capriolen (Gründgens)


Holiday (Cukor); Girl's School (Brahm); Adventure in Sahara (Lederman)


Glamour for Sale (Lederman); Escape to Glory (Brahm)


The Face behind the Mask (Florey); Meet Boston Blackie (Florey); They Dare Not Love (Whale); Time Out for Rhythm (Salkow); Our Wife (Stahl); Sweetheart of the Campus (Dmytryk); Three Girls about Town (Jason)


The Adventures of Martin Eden (Salkow); Harvard, Here I Come (Landers); The Wife Takes a Flyer (Wallace); Flight Lieutenant (Salkow); Sabotage Squad (Landers); The Spirit of Stanford (Barton) (co); Sing for Your Supper (Barton); Honolulu Lu (Barton); Canal Zone (Landers)


The Daring Young Man (Strayer); Tropicana ; Something to Shout About (Ratoff); Appointment in Berlin (Green); My Kingdom for a Cook (Wallace); Destroyer (Seiter); The Heat's On (Ratoff)


Once Upon a Time (Hall); Secret Command (Sutherland); Carolina Blues (Jason); Strange Affair (Green)


I Love a Bandleader (Lord); Leave It to Blondie (Berlin)


The Chase (Ripley); Snafu (Moss); Her Sister's Secret (Ulmer)


The Exile (Ophüls); Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls); One Touch of Venus (Seiter)


Criss Cross (Siodmak); Once More, My Darling (Robson); Champion (Robson)


711 Ocean Drive (Newman); Three Husbands (Reis); Cyrano de Bergerac (Gordon); Vendetta (M. Ferrer)


Death of a Salesman (Benedek); The Blue Veil (Bernhardt); The Scarf (The Dungeon) (Dupont); Decision before Dawn (Litvak)


Roman Holiday (Wyler) (co); The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. (Rowland); 99 River Street (Karlson); Bad for Each Other (Rapper)


20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Fleischer); The Long Wait (Saville); The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk); A Bullet Is Waiting (Farrow)


Not As a Stranger (Kramer); The Left Hand of God (Dmytryk)


The Mountain (Dmytryk)


The Pride and the Passion (Kramer)


Stage Struck (Lumet) (co); The Big Country (Wyler)


The Nun's Story (Zinnemann)


The Unforgiven (Huston)


Breakfast at Tiffany's (Edwards); King of Kings (Ray)


The Children's Hour (Wyler)


On PLANER: articles—

Lawton, Ralph, on Champion in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1949.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1951.

Lightman, Herb A., on Decision before Dawn in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1952.

Rowan, Arthur, on The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1953.

On Not As a Stranger in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1955.

"Shooting Black and White in Color," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1959.

Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.

* * *

Franz Planer has never achieved the critical stature of fellow European emigré cinematographers such as Karl Freund, in spite of the fact that no less a critic than Lotte Eisner placed him, along with Freund, Eugen Schüfftan, and Fritz Arno Wagner, among the greatest directors of photography in Weimar Germany. Planer's work in America is demonstrably significant and creative. Even his colleagues were unsure of what to make of the man who buried his origins under the anglicized credit title "Photographed by Frank Planer" yet whose images had a frankly expressionistic tinge redolent of his experience in Germany. Certain of Planer's projects, such as Decision before Dawn and The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, were as genuinely experimental as anything in the commercial cinema of the postwar era, while others found such favor among industry insiders that he was nominated for five Academy Awards for cinematography. Yet even American Cinematographer bemusedly referred to the enigmatic Planer as "a conscientious little man" in April 1951. The answer to the mystery of Franz Planer is in fact easily solved by viewing his biography with an eye to the way he successfully fused German and American photographic traditions into a personal style.

After newsreel and still photography work, Planer became chief cameraman of the Emelka Company in Munich; it was from this base that he developed his reputation in the world of European commercial filmmaking. Yet in spite of almost constant activity, Planer worked on none of the great films of the German Expressionist canon, and this is undoubtedly a partial explanation for his critical obscurity. He did, however, shoot secondary works of Murnau and Galeen. Planer also shot some of the most popular films of the period, including Die Drei von der Tankstelle. With the coming of the Nazis to power, Planer, like others, found his German career ending.

Planer's early career in Hollywood was a strange one. Like many other European cinematographers, he was enraptured by the scale and technical sophistication of Hollywood production. It is a myth that photographers such as Planer remained glum and homesick during their stays in Hollywood, longing for European artistry in the face of American commercial concerns. Yet, it is true that Planer and his compatriots missed the tradition of the "Regiesitzung," or preproduction planning meeting, at which director, cinematographer, writers, designers, and even actors would debate the conceptualization of the upcoming film. Hollywood's hyperdepartmentalization defeated this slower, more democratic method, and throughout his career Planer sought other avenues for asserting preproduction input on his assignments, as well as ways of gaining greater-than-usual control over the shoot itself.

Hired by Columbia Pictures, Planer, like many of the studio's photographers, was called upon to shoot in all genres, budgets, and even structural formats. His first film in the U.S. was Holiday, but thereafter he spent a number of years working strictly on B-films and low-budget A-productions at Columbia. Yet even as early as Holiday, a Planer style is in evidence. Utilizing characteristic long or extremely long takes, Planer's camera moves easily through Stephen Goosens's glistening white settings of cavernous ballrooms and apartments with complex floorplans, becoming an intimate part of the drama. It follows crucial scenes up and down staircases, and comments on the action through exclusionary framing and staging of actors. Planer's camera, as much as Cukor's direction, is responsible for the transformation of Holiday from its theatrical glibness to a sophisticated comedy of class interest.

But the opportunity to do Holiday turned out to have been an aberration for Planer at the studio during this period, and his career reached a temporary nadir in 1945 with Leave It to Blondie, which restricted him to stock sets, low budgets, and series formula. Planer thus seized on his next assignment, The Chase, with its higher budget and flashback structure, to create the first of his film noir set pieces, a pursuit through a Latin American city during carnival time. Following The Chase, Planer was recognized as a top-line freelance cinematographer, and helped to create some of the finest work produced by Hollywood's Germanic emigrés, working with Max Ophüls, Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, and Anatole Litvak. In this period, several films stand out, but Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman is especially rich. Planer's trademark of shooting dialogue scenes in dynamic fashion, with a moving camera often taking the place of shot-reverse shot patterning, had been in place as early as Holiday, and thus much of the credit for the extravagant use of these devices in the film must be assigned to Planer rather than to Ophüls, as is common in criticism about the film.

In the same period, Planer's work began to take on a poetic realist tone, influenced by the readiness of studios to permit increased location shooting. Beginning with Criss Cross, with its exteriors of the run-down Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, and running through The Nun's Story, Planer used practical interiors and location shooting for a documentary feel, and eagerly sought out films without "superstar" actors, specifically to avoid being typed as a "glamour cinematographer." For several of his films, he also took on the task of location scouting—a further way of guaranteeing a personalized look. Champion and 711 Ocean Drive were both influential arguments in their time for the aesthetics of location shooting.

This increasingly hard-edged realism, inflected with a growing use of visual irony, is an important component of Planer's work in the 1950s. However, Planer also had opportunities to reformulate an expressionist aesthetic around Hollywood conventions through his work in two fantasy films. Brought in early for the production of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, Planer brought a unique imagination to this nightmarish fantasy of a nine-year-old boy tyrannized by his piano teacher, from a scenario by Dr. Seuss. Entirely studio-shot, the film at one time utilized every soundstage on the Columbia lot for its mammoth sets. Planer devised radically new techniques, coloring his sets with light instead of paint, and utilizing experimental lighting instruments for his first film in Technicolor. His work on 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was less spectacular but better integrated into a more standard vision of the fantasy genre. Sacrificing spectacle, using as few of the characteristically awkward Disney mattes as possible, Planer's camera focuses on the interior of the Nautilus, the story's prototype submarine. The craft appears cramped and cloistered; spiny-looking cast-iron decks and bulkheads are in view, space is clearly contiguous, and dark colors and grotesque Victorian bric-abrac give the ship a jarring, unsettling appearance.

The Caine Mutiny fully naturalizes Planer's colorizing within a realistic genre, using light to give an explicitly ironic tint to several scenes. Planer clearly felt comfortable in new formats; from 1954 onwards, most of his work was in color, widescreen, or both. Breakfast at Tiffany's shows how efficiently he incorporated colorization into an ironic mode. The credit sequences of the film are shot in an unsaturated black-and-white-in-color style, while the interiors of Holly Golightly's and Paul Varjak's Manhattan apartments are done in strange, icy blues and grays, with garish red accents. These sets have an uncomfortable feel to them, accentuated by Planer's complex camera movements in closely defined and contiguous spaces. Planer also constantly interposes colored objects such as bead curtains between camera and subject in order to comment on the action, then just as suddenly removes them. Much of the action is shot from slightly too-high or too-low angles, with Holly's breakdown scene shot from a bizarre overhead perspective.

The film demonstrates that Planer's style depended as much on graphic schemes as on color, and, in fact, his style was called "blackand-white-in-color" long before such an appellation had come into general usage. Indeed, Planer returned periodically to black-and-white films, and found in the Kramer unit a suitable and hospitable home for his talents, for the company prided itself on the realism of its subjects and a lofty, high-art approach to its stories. Of his work there, Not As a Stranger is the clearest melding of these two aims. The film, a medical story, was shot in black and white, unusual for melodramas in this period. Kramer took realism to preposterous heights, forcing Planer to film an actual operation. This meant that standard, high wattage lamps could not be used as the heat generated would damage the tender flesh around open incisions. Planer was forced to rely on low-intensity lamps and bounced light off the reflective walls. Planer, unvanquished, used extremely fast Tri-X Pan stock to capture unusual, slow tracking movements in the operating room, making these sequences harrowing in their avoidance of traditional editing patterning in favor of suspenseful, fluid action. The rest of the film rewrites convention as well, favoring low-key lighting for the melodramatic sections, as against the glaring high-key style of the more well-known 1950s melodramas of Sirk and Minnelli.

Yet Planer's masterpiece is surely Decision before Dawn. Entirely location-shot, the film gave Planer his favorite ingredients in one mix: a "no-name" cast of excellent performers, months of preparation, a director (Litvak) whose visual imagination was in synch with his own, and a film with a significant moral dimension to its story line. The result is the only genuine example of an American neorealist style in the 1940s. Its photography is so striking that nearly 40 years later Francis Coppola had the film screened as an example for his cinematographer and cameramen to follow during production of Rumblefish.

The film was an extraordinary logistical undertaking, utilizing footage shot in 16 cities in war-ravaged Europe, including the ruins of Mannheim and Nuremberg. Completely eschewing the use of stock, process, and miniature work, Planer painstakingly supervised the pushing of the exposed footage in processing to achieve a remarkable clarity of image. "It was our aim to make a picture with all the blunt realism of a U.S. Army Signal Corps documentary," said Planer at the time, yet this claim is disingenuous, for the film has a fictional sense of irony and trompe l'oeil as profound as any in American film. The interiors are images of sheer devastation; no building, it seems, has been untouched by Allied bombs. Planer's camera relentlessly probes ruined castles, hospitals and inns, going up stairways, through doorways, down hallways, and into the rooms themselves, capturing a weird architecture of lavish period decor, now dilapidated, overlaid with odd trappings of military occupation. Outside, the landscape is composed of masterfully organized crowd scenes; refugees stone-facedly inhabit blasted streets, shattered bridges, and sluggish, endless truck convoys. This depiction of a society broken in spirit is a succession of set pieces, each unique in the problems confronting the cinematographer, and each a triumph for Planer.

Accounts differ, but it is likely the location-scouting trips to Europe were Planer's first visits to Germany since he had left in the mid-1930s. He had fully adopted American working methods by this time, and been fully adopted by the American industry, yet the cool detachment of the film's images suggests an artist caught between two worlds and a meditation on them both. Decision before Dawn is relentlessly analytical without being judgmental, nostalgic without being sentimental. It poses a moral problem through a visual lexicon, and is thus one of the great philosophical and rhetorical achievements of the American cinema.

—Kevin Jack Hagopian