Unsung Auteurs: Anton Corbijn

May 31, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: photographer turned Control and Life helmer Anton Corbijn.

The Unsung Auteurs column features a few figures under-celebrated as directors because they’re better known for their work in other creative arenas (see Jack Cardiff, Tony Bill and others), which is exactly where Anton Corbijn fits in. But though he’s far better known for his work in the fields of music and photography, Corbijn has a very distinct eye as a filmmaker, and boasts a handful of fascinating films on his resume.

FilmInk has met with Anton Corbijn on a number of occasions, first in 2007. Turning off a very hectic and noisy high street in Shepherds Bush, London, and down into a small cul-de-sac, the atmosphere suddenly switched to one of Zen-like calm when the door opened to Anton Corbijn’s office and photographic studio, which was decorated with a series of black and white photos of music’s aristocracy. There was also a director’s chair, no doubt from the set of his directorial debut Control, while standing in ornament-like fashion in the middle of the room was an electronic drum kit. Does Corbijn play? “Yeah, I play very badly,” he smiled at the question. “Years ago, I was on the UK music show Top Of The Pops, pretending to be the drummer of Depeche Mode. Although when I played on the show, they always silenced my kit.”

Anton Corbijn

Quiet by nature, Corbijn has always been a big noise in the music world as a photographer. Name your favourite musician, and it’s a sure bet that Corbijn has snapped them. Playing at being the drummer for Depeche Mode is just one of the perks of his long-lasting relationship with the band that has seen him photograph them, design their album artwork, and direct their music videos. Depeche Mode, however, is very much the mistress to Corbijn’s long-standing marriage to U2, the band to whom he’s been dedicated lens man for over two decades.

It was during a two-month spell of perusing photos for his book U2 And I: The Photographs 1982-2004 that Corbijn started to reconsider an earlier offer by film producer Orian Williams (Shadow Of The Vampire) to direct a biopic on Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, based on the icon’s widow Deborah Curtis’s book. “Looking at my contact sheets from the early ‘80s,” recalled Corbijn in 2007, “I was reminded of the despair of having no place to call home, of having no money, and of the ritual of buying a record and playing it. Times have changed, but these feelings became so alive for me again, and that included the turbulent year of 1979 when I moved to London. I’d already wanted a change of surroundings, so when Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album came out, I realised that I had to leave Holland to move to where that music came from.”

Sam Riley in a scene from Anton Corbijn’s Control.

There’s no doubt that Corbijn was the best connected to tell Curtis’s story, despite initially resisting the cliche idea of making a music-based film for his first feature. Within two weeks of moving to London in 1979, Corbijn had taken the infamous picture of Joy Division in a London Underground tube station, before going on to photograph them again, and also to direct the video for their song “Atmosphere”. The first-time director’s initial concern about directing the film was that it shouldn’t be a simple adaptation of Deborah Curtis’s book. “I didn’t want to make Debbie Curtis’s story. I wanted to make Ian Curtis’s story.”

Corbijn’s sensitivity and integrity were paramount to the film’s production (as was his private investment, which ensured him final cut), with his reputation in the music industry also helping in securing the use of music from the likes of David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Iggy Pop. His judgement proved to be spot-on too. Essentially, the film rested principally on who would play Ian Curtis. In short, Corbijn’s choice of the inexperienced Sam Riley was a revelation. “Of course, I was quite nervous about the choice, because I thought he had no experience. But whenever I doubted it, I just thought of Ken Loach’s film Kes. I like the innocence of that boy, because he has no luggage, and I wanted the same with Sam Riley.”

A scene from Control.

While critics and audiences have heaped praise on the melancholic grace of Corbijn’s masterful debut, the director himself is still amazed that he’s actually made a film of Curtis’s story. “It’s an incredible story in itself,” he concludes. “You move countries, then meet and photograph the band that inspired your move, and decades later that leads to you directing a movie about them.”

When the news was announced that Corbijn would follow up Control with an adaption of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, expectations were understandably high. Featuring George Clooney as the main protagonist, and retitled The American, the film follows the story of a hitman who hides himself away in a small Italian town while he tries to rebuild his damaged life. Trouble soon follows, and he finds himself caught up in a dangerous game of cat and mouse as the mob comes after him and the new love in his life.

Anton Corbijn with George Clooney on the set of The American.

FilmInk caught up with Corbijn in a London hotel towards the end of the film’s production in 2009, and found a quietly confident, softly spoken man who, whilst still learning the tricks of his new trade, was clearly excited about the project that he was about to finish. He explained to us how he first became aware of the book after reading a script based upon it. “When I first read the script, I liked it a lot, but then I started to read the original book,” Corbijn smiled, “and I then didn’t like the script as much as I liked the book! I then rewrote the script with my ideas integrated into it.” So how do the book and film differ? “In the book, the main character is an eccentric English gunsmith and hitman,” Corbijn replied. “I changed that quite a bit, although we are still in the same Italian location, and the main protagonist is now an American.”

A big fan of westerns, Corbijn was quick to point out the similarities that this film shares with the classic genre. “As a kid, I played cowboys and Indians, and it was a big part of my childhood. In many ways, The American is very similar to a western: you have the prostitute and priest who represent the physical and spiritual elements, and of course, the main character is a stranger in town. The film features a man who is in a very European setting, surrounded by Europeans, and he stands out because he is the only American.”

Anton Corbijn with George Clooney on the set of The American.

With a certain George Clooney in the title role, the process of making such a big budget film compared to his previous experience making music videos was made all that much easier. “George is a highly experienced actor, and he brought a lot of that experience to the film,” says Corbijn. “He was fantastic. Having worked as a director himself, he knows that the worst thing that an actor can do is hide away in their trailer, so he made a point of not doing that. He was always on the set, and he made himself available at all times.”

Though very well received, The American didn’t make a huge impact, but Corbijn’s skills as a director were well established. Building on the facility that he’d shown for the cerebral thriller with The American, Corbijn’s next film was 2014’s A Most Wanted Man. From the opening title card that links the gestation of the 9/11 campaign with Hamburg’s hub of conspiratorial terrorism, Corbijn made it clear that he wanted his adaptation of John Le Carre’s 2008 page-turner to be treated as a real-world scenario.

Anton Corbijn with Philip Seymour Hoffman on the set of A Most Wanted Man.

Following the European intelligence community’s failure to derail the planning of the World Trade Center attacks, all covert operatives function on a personal “high alert.” Orchestrating the angst to his benefit is career analyst, Gunter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who oversees an anti-terrorism unit maintaining both high profile and covert relationships with the local ethnic enclaves. Their latest assignment is Chechen-Russian outcast, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young man violently silenced by his homeland governments, and seeking shelter with a Muslim family in Germany. Human rights attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), is swayed by his gentle exterior, and helps him access a multi-million-dollar inheritance. To Bachmann, Karpov has the makings of a jihadist, the funds destined for local terrorist cells.

Corbijn’s next film, 2015’s Life, documents the longtime friendship of fifties cinema figurehead, James Dean (Dane DeHaan), and Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), the young photographer from Life Magazine whose stark, beautifully composed black-and-white images of the rebellious actor are among the greatest celebrity portraiture ever committed to film. “The attraction to this project was really the idea of a photographer and his subject, where the subject is in the public eye,” Corbijn told FilmInk at The Berlin Film Festival in 2015. “For over forty years, that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s what I could relate to, and that’s why I did this film. I didn’t do the film because of James Dean…the film is not a biopic on James Dean. It’s about a photographer shooting somebody who’s well known, and how that balance works. That person happens to be James Dean. It then becomes a film about two guys who become friends, and the kind of effect that it has on their lives.”

Anton Corbijn

Back in 2009, Anton Corbijn explained how different making a film is compared to a photographic shoot or music video, and it is a process that he was still coming to terms with, especially with regards to the amount of time involved in a movie production. “For me, it was very challenging,” the director says. “The process of making photography is totally different from the process of making a film. I take my pictures within half an hour generally, and with this, it’s a marathon. It is incredibly challenging, and if I don’t do something, then things will go wrong, so I always have to be on top of everything. That’s tough…really tough. I’m very hands-on, and I like to do a lot of the stuff myself, so it’s hard for me to sit back.”

Though he has been duly celebrated for his extraordinary photographic work (Klaartje Quirijns’ excellent 2012 documentary Anton Corbijn Inside Out does exactly that), Anton Corbijn is deserving of far greater praise and recognition for his stylish, visually striking, and emotionally resonant work on film.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Gillian Robespierre, Brandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.