In Memoriam        WALTER LASSALLY 

Walter LASSALLY

The title of the cinematographer Walter Lassally's 1987 autobiography, Itinerant Cameraman, could not have been more apt. Lassally, who has died aged 90, was born in Germany (he had a German father and a Polish mother), lived and worked in the UK, and made films in, among many other countries, Czechoslovakia and Greece.

It was the last of these, where he shot Zorba the Greek (1964), which won him best black-and-white cinematography Oscar, that meant the most to him. Known locally as "Walter the Greek", Lassally lived for many years outside the city of Chania, on the island of Crete, near the beach that had served as location for the movie's celebrated final scene, with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates dancing to the music of Mikis Theodorakis. He shot six films with its Greek director Michael Cacoyannis, but he had earlier been associated closely with the Free Cinema movement in the UK and the directors that came out of it, and his other celebrated connection was with the American director James Ivory.

Lassally was born in Berlin into a family with Jewish forebears. His father was an industrial film-maker there until the Nazi threat forced the family to flee in 1939 to London, where his father set up a one-man film unit. Wanting to get into films himself, Lassally abandoned his studies and took a job as clapper boy at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. When the studio went bankrupt, he began freelancing as a cameraman.

He had already formed certain strong opinions about cinema – believing in personal, low-budget film-making – and joined the group of budding film-makers, including Lindsay Anderson, Gavin Lambert and the Czech-born Karel Reisz (another refugee from the Nazis), who wrote for the influential Sequence magazine. Many of the writers made pungent comments on the structure of the industry and the social implications of the medium. Sequence was important in disseminating the ideas that were later developed in Free Cinema.

This movement, closely connected with contemporary revolts against orthodoxy in the theatre and literature, grew around a series of short films shown at the National Film Theatre in the 1950s. Lassally shot a number of documentaries for Anderson, including Thursday's Children (1954), about the Royal School for the Deaf in Margate (which won an Oscar for best documentary short) and Every Day Except Christmas (1957), about Covent Garden market, as well as working on Momma Don't Allow (1956), directed by Reisz and Tony Richardson and filmed at Wood Green jazz club in north London, and Reisz's We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). Although all the directors were middle-class, these films attempted to depict Britain from a working-class point of view. They shot real people in real locations, frequently using the newly available Bolex hand-held cameras.

"The main limitation of that was that it was a spring-operated camera and it had the maximum running time of 21 seconds or 22 seconds," Lassally said. "So not only could you not shoot with sound because the camera made a noise, but you also had to limit yourself to the maximum length of 22 seconds. But I have found that when I look at these films again in retrospect the technical limitations, which were considerable, were a stimulant rather than a hindrance. For instance, The Lambeth Boys is mainly visual – you could turn off the soundtrack and you'd still get the information coming across." 

A chance meeting with Cacoyannis at the 1954 Cannes film festival was to change Lassally's life. The following year, he went to Athens to start shooting A Girl in Black (1956), in which, immediately, his visual style, with sharp blacks and whites, imposed itself and became identified with the lyrical realism of Cacoyannis's films. He went on to make A Matter of Dignity (1958), Our Last Spring (1960), Electra (1962) and The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), the only one in colour, for Cacoyannis. 

walter lassally

Zorba the Greek was shot in four different locations in Crete, using several ravishing aerial shots as well as some noteworthy hand-held camerawork. Lassally fell in love with the island and, in 1998, he moved permanently to Stavros, where he lived alone (his wife, Nadia, having died in 1994) and where he could admire its famous rock, which features so prominently in the film.

In contrast to the films he made in Greece were those he shot in the UK for Richardson during the 60s new wave. A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) were greyly naturalistic. Lassally used subdued colour for Tom Jones (1963), a lively swinging 60s version of Henry Fielding's picaresque 18th-century classic novel that deployed a barrage of visual tricks: Tom's childhood is narrated in the style of a silent film, and there is use of slow and accelerated motion and the freeze frame, all mixed with delicately photographed rustic settings.

Lassally brought his beautifully clear and crisp style to bear on six films by Ivory, three in the US, one in London and two in India. The American films were Savages (1972) with its mixture of colour, sepia and monochrome, The Wild Party (1975), set in 20s Hollywood, and The Bostonians (1984), based on Henry James, which, according to the New York Times critic had "a sunny, rapturous look that could no more be mistaken for ordinary romanticism than could Mr James's astute, decorous prose".

In India, Lassally shot Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978) and Heat and Dust (1983), brilliantly capturing the feel of the country. Although Autobiography of a Princess (1975) was filmed in London, India was its subject. "Atmospheric photography is one of my criteria when I decide which projects to accept," Lassally claimed.

In 1991, Lassally took on The Ballad of the Sad Café for the Merchant-Ivory company, directed by Simon Callow. He found, however, that Callow's inexperience as a film-maker led to the cinematographer and the director being occasionally at loggerheads.

Parallel to his work as a film cameraman, which he did less and less from the 90s, Lassally engaged in still photography and, from 1988 to 1992, headed the camera department of the National Film and Television School, in Beaconsfield.

His last credit as a cinematographer was on Crescent Heart (2001), but he made an onscreen appearance in 2013 in Before Midnight, the third of Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy, which was set in Greece – Lassally featured as Patrick, the elderly British writer in whose house Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are spending a summer holiday.

Ronald Bergan
first published in:
www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/24/walter-lassally-obituary 

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