(By Luigi Paglia)
Dong Lei has many credits to his career as a production designer. As PD for award-winning films such as Emily, Cage, and Next Door, he has enabled films of varying genres to deliver their story with immense success. Sometimes one must step out of a comfortable role in order to stretch and learn. For Lei, taking the responsibilities of writer, director, producer, as well as production designer allowed him to challenge himself in creating a period piece. The Cello Player takes place in the mid 1940’s World War II era and is a remarkable in its recreation of the look of this time in addition to conveying a heart-wrenching experience. The story takes place in Poland as the Russian army is about to converge on German officers taking refuge in a brothel. A musician who plays for the entertainment of patrons is toyed with by a German officer who is facing inevitable surrender. Hoping to enact power and control over those in the brothel, in particular the Cellist, the officer conducts a game of mental/emotional cat & mouse. The constitution of both is tested as the sounds of war outside the walls of the building escalate.
Dong’s work on The Cello Player was recognized in 2017 with the “Best Production Design” award at both the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. A responsible production designer always begins with immersion in research. A period piece such as The Cello Player requires more than the average amount of this if you want astute audience members to buy into the believability of the story. Lei spent considerable time researching in museums, libraries, and online to ensure that he created an environment which contained no cracks that could reveal the modern day in this World War II era drama. He spent time interviewing the older generation familiar with this bygone time as a final jury to vet the weaponry and technology displayed in the film was accurate. Actor Thure Riefenstien (known for his work in The Man in the High Castle, among others) played the German officer in The Cello Player and has had extensive experience appearing in films of this era. He comments, “Due to my own lengthy history of success in the international film industry I feel fully qualified to judge Dong’s exceptional achievements. I found his attention to detail impressive and insightful. In particular, we discussed the look of authentic German uniforms. As an actor, the costumes and the sets are a part of what allows you to become lost in the character and believe in yourself. The look that Dong achieved for this film was second to none. This greatly assisted myself and the other cast members to deliver a performance at the top of our abilities.”
Dong acquired props through prop houses and aged them to feel appropriate to the location in which the film takes place. The location was an actual hundred-year-old brothel. Always a stickler for details, Dong had the entire set wired for European electricity even though it was originally wired for US electricity. He hired a European electrical worker to rewire the set with the intent of giving complete accuracy to its appearance and design. With this completed, the set, specific wardrobe requirements (which Dong had created at Western Costume), and accoutrements like vintage typewriters, the entirety of the mid 20th century was complete. While these all play a prominent part of the film, a central piece is the Cello. The production designer acquired it via an unexpected circumstance. When Dong contacted a composer to create an original musical piece for The Cello Player, he met with him to discuss the story and this composition’s emotional contribution. The composer was so touched by the story that he offered up one of his beloved mid 1940’s Cellos as a prominent prop for the film. The action of the film vacillates between domination and détente in a compelling look at what we demand from ourselves and others when we have power, framed in a tale of a time when people were often at their worst.
Dong Lei openly admits that the work required from him to manifest the look of this film was immense. Over planning was the template which he used. The budget may not have been supportive of this goal but it’s a resourceful production designer who finds a way to achieve their own professional goals within these constraints. The look was so convincing that many of the actors profess that it inspired their performances. Thure Riefenstien himself was so moved by the story and setting that he gave an unplanned interview (while in his Nazi costume) about the lives of his own family’s personal experiences in Germany. The tale was so emotional and riveting that it was actually included in the final cut of the film. The work of Dong Lei cultivated a sense of believability that blurred the lines for both audience and cast of The Cello Player.