Boris Kaufman - Writer

Cinematographer. Nationality: Polish. Born: Bialystok, 24 August 1906; Education: Studied at the Sorbonne, Paris. Military Service: 1939–41—served in the French infantry. Family: Brother of the directors Dziga Vertov (born Denis Kaufman) and Mikhail Kaufman; married; one son. Career: Left Soviet Union in early 1920s;1928—first film as cinematographer, Champs-Elysées ; after the German occupation began, moved to New York; 1942–43—worked for National Film Board of Canada; worked for Office of War Information, New York; mid-1950s—first U.S. features as cinematographer. Award: Academy Award for On the Waterfront , 1954. Died: In New York City, 24 June 1980.

Films as Cinematographer (Shorts):


Champs-Elysées (Lods); La Marche des machines (Deslaw); Vingt-quatre heures en trente minutes (Lods)


Les Halles (Galitzine) (co)

Boris Kaufman (left) with Sidney Lumet
Boris Kaufman (left) with Sidney Lumet


A propos de Nice (Vigo)


La Vie d'un fleuve: La Seine (Lods); Le Mile de Jules Ladoumègue (Lods); Traveaux du tunnel sous l'Escaut (Storck) (co)


Zéro de conduite (Vigo)


A Better Tomorrow (Hackenschmied); Toscanini, Hymn of the Nations (Hackenschmied) (co); Capital Story (Rodakiewicz); The Southwest ( Land of Enchantment: South-west U.S.A. ) (Rodakiewicz)


Journey into Medicine (W. Van Dyke)


Terribly Talented (Hackenschmied); Osmosis (W. Van Dyke)


The Lambertville Story


Preface to a Life (Resnick); The Tanglewood Story ( Tanglewood, Music School and Music Festival ) (Maddison)


The Gentleman in Room 6 (Hackenschmied)


And the Earth Shall Give Back Life (Jurgens)


Within Man's Power (Webster); Amazing What Color Can Do


A Family Affair (Jacoby)


Home Again (Jacoby)


Film (Schneider)

Films as Cinematographer (Features):


Le Chemin du bonheur (Mamy)


L'Atalante (Vigo) (co); Le Père Lampion (Christian-Jaque); Zouzou (M. Allegret)


Lucrèce Borgia (Gance) (co)


L'Homme sans coeur (Joannon); Oeil-du-Lynx, détective (Ducis); On ne roule pas Antoinette (Madeux); Quand minuit sonnera (Joannon) (co)


Cinderella (Caron); Etes-vous jalouse? (Chomette); Les Hommes sans nom (Vallée) (co)


Fort-Dolorès (Le Hénaff); Les Gaités de l'exposition (Hajos)


Sérénade (Boyer) (co); Le Veau gras (de Poligny) (co)


Leonardo da Vinci (Emmer) (co)


Garden of Eden (Nosseck); On the Waterfront (Kazan)


Crowded Paradise (Pressburger); Baby Doll (Kazan); Twelve Angry Men (Lumet); Patterns ( Patterns of Power ) (Cook)


That Kind of Woman (Lumet); The Fugitive Kind (Lumet)


Splendor in the Grass (Kazan)


Long Day's Journey into Night (Lumet)


All the Way Home (Segal); Gone Are the Days! ( Purlie Victorious ; The Man from C.O.T.T.O.N. ) (Webster)


The World of Henry Orient (Hill) (co); The Pawnbroker (Lumet)


The Group (Lumet)


Bye Bye Braverman (Lumet)


Uptight (Dassin); The Brotherhood (Ritt)


Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (Preminger)


By KAUFMAN: articles—

Film Culture (New York), Summer 1955.

On Twelve Angry Men in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1956.

On Baby Doll in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1957.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1982.

On KAUFMAN: articles—

Foster, Frederick, on The Fugitive Kind in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1960.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), 1962.

Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.

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

Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1973.

Obituary, New York Times , 27 June 1980.

Obituary, The Annual Obituary 1980 , New York, 1981.

Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1984.

* * *

In his 45-year-long career, Boris Kaufman filmed newsreels, avant-garde films, documentaries, industrials, TV commercials, and feature films, winning an Academy Award for black-and-white cinematography in 1954 ( On the Waterfront ) and maintaining lengthy collaborations with three notable movie directors—Jean Vigo, Elia Kazan, and Sidney Lumet.

Kaufman was the youngest of three brothers who themselves are a noteworthy trio. Denis, the older, became world-famous as Dziga Vertov ( Kino-Eye , Kino-Pravda , The Man with the Movie Camera ); Mikhail, the middle brother, was chief cameraman on many of Denis's films and on his own documentary films as well. While Denis and Mikhail remained in Moscow at the end of the First World War, Boris went on to Paris to study poetry and philosophy. Inspired by letters from Denis, who wrote him that the camera was "the chief instrument of filmmaking" and that "only by discovering its secrets could one realize the full potential of the new art of cinema," Boris attended a small technical school in Paris where he learned the rudiments of operating a motion picture camera. His first assignments were on reportage and documentary "pictures" (as he called them, using the Hollywood term—although he never worked in Hollywood).

In 1928 Kaufman filmed Eugene Deslav's La Marche des machines , which began as a routine assignment covering a technological exposition but which led Kaufman into an abstract study of mechanical movements. The film was shown in a Paris art theater, without Kaufman's credit, as he was violently opposed to its editing. This seems to have been the only time he refused credit on a film—even a nudist film he shot many years later in Florida had his name on it.

After filming other experimental films, Kaufman was invited by Jean Vigo to work with him on A propos de Nice , a short, shocking satire on upper- and middle-class lifestyles in that resort city. Kaufman used a Kinamo (one of the first hand-held 35mm cameras, which his brother Denis had brought him in 1927) "to get rid of the tripod, to be more flexible, and to avoid being noticed by the people we were filming."

Their second film, Zéro de conduite , was shot in 16 1/2 days—seven in a Paris studio for the interiors, then nine-and-a-half in a school in suburban St. Cloud. The shooting ratio was two or three to one, which was all they could afford. For the sound shooting Kaufman used a Debry camera, and for more flexibility, the little Kinamo. Their final film, L'Atalante , was shot on a barge on the canals around Paris in late fall and winter, in bitter cold. Vigo's frail health gave out completely, just as the filming was finished; his death soon afterwards, at age 29, ended their close personal friendship, as well as the avant-garde phase of Kaufman's career. The Vigo-Kaufman collaboration lasted only five years, but was one of the most creative and memorable in film history, ranking perhaps with Griffith and Bitzer and Eisenstein and Tisse.

In the middle and late 1930s, Kaufman worked as staff cameraman at Paramount's Paris studio, where he began learning English, and on numerous European features, little known today. In the Second World War he was drafted into the army as a French citizen, and, when France fell, escaped to the United States with his wife and their son. For the remaining war years, he worked at the National Film Board of Canada in Ottawa and at the Office of War Information in New York. As documentary assignments grew scarcer and less challenging, he began shooting industrial films—and those new one-minute oddities called TV commercials. He longed to return to feature dramatic films, but Hollywood was out of the question.

When Kaufman heard that Elia Kazan was going to shoot On the Waterfront in New Jersey, he wanted to show him L'Atalante , but could not find a print in the United States. He showed two of his American documentaries instead, and got the job anyway, beginning the second of his three important collaborations. After filming on the docks and rooftops, Kazan gave Kaufman the choice of filming the interiors in a studio or on location. Later, Kaufman said that while studio shooting would have been easier, especially in dead of winter, he preferred "the patina of reality" they found in waterfront bars and sixth-floor tenements. Kaufman won the 1954 Academy Award for black-and-white cinematography (the writer Budd Schulberg, the art director Richard Day, and Kazan also won Oscars). "I drew upon my experience, I developed ways to apply precise lighting on location, which is not easy. By precision lighting I mean lighting that has a meaning. Of course, the only meaning of lighting is to reveal the inner expression of the face or the mood of a place." Baby Doll , filmed for Kazan under difficult conditions in Mississippi, brought Kaufman a 1955 Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Kaufman was thought by some producers to be "slow." Kazan may have had this in his mind when he wrote, after Boris's death, for a tribute at the Museum of Modern Art: "Poetry, as everyone knows who's tried it, takes a little longer. He didn't hurry his pace, become careless, diminish his devotion."

Kaufman's third major collaboration was in 1956 with Twelve Angry Men , Sidney Lumet's first film, based on a television play he had directed. They worked together off and on for some ten years. Lumet considers Long Day's Journey into Night their "closest and most successful collaboration" (and at one time, called it his own favorite production). In later years, Kaufman worked with Jules Dassin, Martin Ritt, Otto Preminger and others. He retired in 1972.

It was Kaufman's increasing burden, especially later in his career, that he often knew and cared more about the "pictures" he worked on than their directors did. Nothing, of course, could equal the first great collaboration with Vigo, when they were young. "I had no second thoughts about risks involved," Kaufman later recalled. "When you carry a bigger responsibility in a larger picture, you have to be conscious of many things—and you discipline yourself just to survive in available conditions. . . . This art form has to survive in very materialistic and utilitarian conditions, which is not easy." No one ever accused Boris Kaufman of taking the easy way.

—Cecile Starr

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