A man and a woman are strolling in a garden at night. The lamps are on and their light spreads across the sky in a white blur that watches over the darkness of the scene. The man is Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a screenwriter from Hollywood’s golden age and the woman is Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a chorus girl turned movie actress, whose career is managed by William Randolph Hearst, an influential newspaper tycoon.
The scene was shot during the day using a night effect technique. To ensure that the actors’ expressions would stand out from the background, numerous lights were used, some of which were pointed straight in their faces. In fact, the light was so intense that both Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried had to wear tinted contact lenses to protect their eyes and stop them from squinting.
This is just one example of the many tricks that Erik Messerschmidt, winner of the 2021 Academy Award for Best Cinematography, used in Mank, a film directed by David Fincher and produced by Netflix. The film was shot directly in black and white and required a highly creative use of techniques and special effects to reproduce the classic atmosphere of 1930s and ‘40s movies. Theatre-style lighting creates dramatic beams of light and the use of smoke allows images to float in a mist that softens their black and white contrasts.
Mank tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz, a screenwriter during Hollywood’s golden age who is recruited by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane. As Mankiewicz works on the script in a bungalow in the Californian desert, the present mingles with the past in a series of flashbacks. So Mank becomes a film about the cinema itself while also recounting the political and economic events of a certain period in America through the story of one of its greatest industries, Hollywood.
Messerschmidt’s cinematography avoids self-indulgent citations in favour of the photography created by Gregg Toland for Citizen Kane, thereby reinforcing a mechanism of continuous allusions in a film that tells the story, or better stories, of one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters and the cinematic milestone that is Citizen Kane.
Light becomes a fundamental element in the construction of the narrative structure that alternates continually between past and present. The flashbacks in the story are marked by transitions that, theatrically, open and close on darkness, collapsing memories into blackness and opening breaches in time between the past and present.
Light becomes a fundamental element in the construction of the narrative structure that alternates continually between past and present.
In this film, the lighting often acts as a guide. So, a door that opens to illuminate a character - Mank lying drunk on a bed - becomes a kind of spotlight projecting a cone of light, just like the ones used on film sets at the time. Lights, lamps and fires create a halo of light that suffuses into the sets, plunging corners into darkness and suddenly lighting up faces. The sun, in the scenes filmed outside, is also continually tamed by Messerschmidt’s cinematography that circumvents it, controls its rays and mingles its brightness with spotlights to create subtle harmonies.
Mank is the result of a conversation between what is real and what is illusion. The scorched celluloid effects, created in post-production, set the film in a false past, evoking a melancholic nostalgia for a golden age of cinema in which both the act of making and watching a film were cloaked in magic and wonder. Mank captures this wistful melancholy perfectly and uses it to create a viewing experience that feels as if it belongs to another era.