Renato Berta: filmmaking profession, with the greatest filmmakers

To meet a director is to revisit his filmography, to grasp his films and their place in the history of cinema. Chat with Renato Berta, is to dive directly into the heart of the history of the 7th art. Born 77 years ago in Bellinzona, Ticino has been working as a chief cameraman since the late 1960s, and as such has worked with both the so-called “new Swiss cinema” and the New Wave Heralds, by Godard (Saved who can (life)1979) to Chabrol (Thanks for the chocolate2000) to Rivette (Hurlevent1984) and Rohmer (The Nights of the Full Moon1984).

We meet Renato Berta in the offices of the Swiss Cinematheque, who dedicates a retrospective to him summarizing a career that forces respect, made of a long companionship of 11 films with his friend Daniel Schmid, as well as regular collaborations with Alain Resnais, Robert Guédiguian, Manoel de Oliveira and Amos Gitaï. If he says he is aware of his career, the director of photography points out at the outset that he was especially lucky. “I do a dating job. But sometimes you can meet and nothing happens. was able to establish a real dialogue, in the image of Resnais.

In Rome with Pasolini

“He offered to do it for me.” Smoking / No Smoking (1993), and I must say that I was terrified to meet this imposing gentleman, who spoke absolutely wonderful and perfect French. ” As the two of them read, to tame the script, a real deal developed – “and we automatically got to the shooting and the photography.” Nearly thirty years after showing the Frenchman’s films at the cinema club he co-founded in Bellinzona, the chief cameraman was writing a piece of history alongside him. Smoking / No Smoking will receive five Caesars, but will not be worth his second reward after the one he received five years earlier for Goodbye childrenby Louis Malle.

When he decided to leave Ticino for the first time at the age of 20, after an apprenticeship as a mechanic, Renato Berta opted for Rome, where he studied at the Experimental Film Center. “Until then, I had a very whimsical relationship with cinema and its production.” To me, actors were not human beings. ” His first Roman memory: the people who laugh at his Ticino accent. “In 1967, a year before France, we went to college and asked to have contacts with people in the profession. That’s when we meet Pasolini: unforgettable! I will see him again and again and meet Visconti as well. ”

Read: French-speaking Switzerland: Group 5 and later

With this experience, the Ticino returns to Switzerland without really knowing what he is going to do. Freddy Buache, the founder of the Swiss Cinematheque, will put his foot down. The chief cameraman again speaks of luck: in the late 1960s, five French-speaking directors from television, who would form Group 5, switched to feature film and reinvented cinema.

In two films with Alain Tanner (Charles dead or alive1969; The Salamander, 1971), he makes a name for himself. He will also hold the camera for Francis Reusser (Long live death 1969) and later Claude Goretta (Not so bad that’s it1974) and Michel Soutter (Spotting, 1977). Without these encounters, his career would have been different, he is convinced. “It was a cinema of enthusiasm, we always had to find solutions, we were paid a lot of money but we managed to make a living.”

Meeting with Alain Tanner: “It’s hard to film Switzerland, a country so kind, calm, domesticated”

From that time, he inherited the certainty that photography is in the service of film, not the other way around. He will never ignore what he is filming, like “those operators who make no difference between close-ups of Catherine Deneuve and massacred Ukrainian children. The important thing is to try to understand what the director wants, you have to find the internal coherence in the film. Good filmmakers often don’t know what they want, they mostly know what they don’t want. Like scientists, they search. ”

Like a first violin

Renato Berta has made the big difference between the radical auteur cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and films for the general public, such as The Year of the Jellyfish (Christopher Frank, 1984) or Uranus (Claude Berri, 1990). “We can’t generalize, but on the set, it’s often psychology that comes first,” he said. And because the problems that a Straub or a Berri has to face are very different, you have to feed on the qualities of each filmmaker. ”

The Ticino has the humility of the great. He still tells with amusement how Alexandre Astruc asked him in the mid-1970s, for a documentary on Jean-Paul Sartre, an unlikely shot-sequence starting outside the University of Lausanne and ending a few floors higher in the office of a teacher. This camera on his shoulder will be worth a collaboration with Patrice Chéreau on The Wounded Man (1982), who launched his career in France. “Cinema is a multi-faceted art, with the director as the conductor.” And I’m a bit of the first violinist, ”concludes Renato Berta.

To read again, this archive: Renato Berta, hidden behind a camera, how do you see the cinema? (“Le Nouveau Quotidien”, on LeTempsArchives, March 24, 1995)


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[1945 March 2, born in Bellinzona.

1972 “Tonight or Never,” the first of 11 films with Daniel Schmid.

1988 Caesar of the best photography for “Goodbye children”, by Louis Malle.

1993 “Smoking / No Smoking”, by Alain Resnais.

2021 Grasset’s autobiography “Photograms”, co-written with Jean-Marie Charuau, was published.

2022 Retrospective at the Swiss Cinematheque.


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