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Biography

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Overview (3)

Born in Bialystok, Poland, Russian Empire
Died in New York City, New York, USA
Birth NameBoris Abelevich Kaufman

Mini Bio (1)

Boris Kaufman, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who shot Jean Vigo's oeuvre and helped introduce a neo-realistic style into American films, was born on August 24, 1897, in Bialystok, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. The youngest son of librarians, the Soviet directors Denis Kaufman (a.k.a. Dziga Vertov, meaning "Spinning Top") and Mikhail Kaufman were his older brothers. Dziga Vertov was one of the great innovators in Soviet cinema, the father of the agit-prop film, who directed Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and his brother Boris imitated his beloved camera tricks when he shot the documentary À propos de Nice (1930) for Vigo.

The Kaufmans' parents decided to move to Moscow at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and Denis went to school in St. Petersburg. In 1917, Russia experienced two revolutions, one which overthrew the Czar and the later, the "October" Revolution, which overthrew the bourgeois democracy and established the Bolshevik Party as the new rulers of what they called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Denis and his brother Mikhail were enamored of the October Revolution and volunteered their services as filmmakersto the new socialist state.

During the revolutionary period, Kaufman's parents moved back to Poland, which after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, became independent from the Soviet Union. They took along Boris, who was much younger than his brothers. Poland and the Soviet Union eventually fought a border war, and the young Kaufman's parents sent him to Paris to be educated. Their son Denis, now Dziga Vertov, whose new name connoted the speed of the new medium and of his new life as a revolutionary artist, as well as the revolutions of a film reel, become a cinema philosopher as well as director. Dziga Vertov issued manifestos calling for filmmakers to take a formative role in shaping the new socialist order, replacing "dream films" with movies articulating "Soviet actuality."

Boris Kaufman, who eventually emigrated to France in 1927, later credited his brother Mikhail with his education as a cameraman. "Mikhail taught me cinematography by mail," he told Columbia University Professor Erik Barnouw.

After the Kaufman brothers' parents died, Mikhail had taken on a paternal responsibility for Boris, writing him regularly, and informing him about his film work. Though the brothers never met again after 1917, they did stay in touch via the mails throughout their lives. Boris viewed his brother's films in Paris and was drawn to similar work with Jean Vigo.

A photographer himself, Vigo had acquired a movie camera in order to make films, but he couldn't master it. Vigo had the great luck of meeting and collaborating with Kaufman, who was to evolve into one of the masters of black-and-white cinematography. It was Kaufman who is responsible for the wintry style of L'Atalante (1934), Vigo's sole feature film, as well as the imagery of his other filmed worked, such as Zero for Conduct (1933). As a cinematographer, Kaufman was instrumental in helping Vigo realize his vision on film. The films Kaufman shot for Vigo are both romantic and surreal, infused with a dream-like quality.

Vigo, a consumptive, died of tuberculosis in October 1934, ending their great collaboration that had started with À propos de Nice (1930), and had continued with the documentary about the swimmer Jean Taris, Taris (1931). The latter documentary featured underwater visuals captured by Kaufman that underscored the dreamy quality of swimming, of being underwater. Vigo and Kaufman enhanced this dreaminess by utilizing slow-motion photography, to serve as correlative for the natural slowing of the body in swimming and to elucidate the glow of skin under water.

The collaborators moved on to fiction with Zero for Conduct (1933), a short film drawn from Vigo's memories of an authoritarian boarding school. The movie influenced the directors of the French New Wave, particularly François Truffaut and his The 400 Blows (1959), and was the inspiration for Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968). The great classic "L'Atalante" (1934) finished up the collaboration, one of the greatest between a director and a cinematographer. The realization of Vigo's genius would have been unthinkable without Kaufman.

Kaufman shot Lucrezia Borgia (1935) for Abel Gance, but with the passing of Vigo, he temporarily lost his direction. He shot two shorts for the avant-garde director Dimitri Kirsanoff and was the director of photography on four films with director Léo Joannon.

After serving in the French Army during the sitzkrieg and the Battle of France, Kaufman emigrated to Canada as a war refugee. He was hired by John Grierson to be a cameraman for the National Film Board of Canada. Kaufman moved to the United States in 1942, where he eventually became a citizen. Locked out of feature work by the guild system, Kaufman supported himself shooting short subjects and documentaries before Elia Kazan chose him to shoot On the Waterfront (1954). The Kazan film, for which Kaufman won an Academy Award for cinematography, was his first American feature.

Kazan had wanted Kaufman, with his roots in the documentary, as a collaborator as he planned to inject realism on the order of the Italian neo-realists into American film. Kazan, in his autobiography "A Life" says it was his collaboration with Kaufman that taught him that cinematographers were artists in their own right. (Interestingly, being a former Russian/Soviet citizen and the brother of two prominent Soviet directors, Kuafman was under suspicion during the Cold War of communist sympathies. It was likely that his correspondence with his brother in the USSR was read by U.S. intelligence agents. His lack of career progression until Kazan picked him to shoot On the Waterfront (1954) may have been a result of anti-red paranoia. Thus, only someone like Kazan -- one of the few directors, and the most prominent filmmaker to testify as a friendly witness before the Houe Un-American Activities Committee -- having established his anti-communist credentials, could have employed Boris Kaufman during the height of the post-World War II Red Scare. And, of course, the film Kaufman shot for Kazan is a not-so-thinly veiled anti-communist apologia for informing.)

Kaufman also photographed Baby Doll (1956) (for which he received a second Oscar nomination) in B+W and Splendor in the Grass (1961) in color for Kazan. He was the director of photography on Sidney Lumet's first film, 12 Angry Men (1957), and he also shot The Fugitive Kind (1960), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) and the gritty The Pawnbroker (1964) for Lumet, all in B+W.

Interestingly, Kaufman shot the landmark nudist film Garden of Eden (1954), which led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Excelsior Pictures Corp. v. Regents of University of New York State), in which the majority held that the film was not obscene or indecent, and that nudity was not itself obscene. A decade later, he shot Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett's sole foray into film, Film (1965), which was directed by Alan Schneider from Beckett's screenplay. These two movies are testimonials to his adventuresome and iconoclastic spirit, rooted in the experimental cinema.

Boris Kaufman retired in 1970, after shooting for Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) for Otto Preminger. He died on June 24, 1980, in New York, New York.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood

Trivia (2)

Brother of Dziga Vertov.
Brother of Mikhail Kaufman.

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