Tom Tykwer movies have really great establishing shots (they also have gorgeous and effective overhead shots, something I’ll write about later). I want to base this claim in a quick look at the mostly unexceptional The Internationalfor which John Mahiffe, in addition to a mess of location-specific ADs, was the second unit director.

Perhaps the key to the establishing shots in The International is the way in which they make clear how people use the space on screen. One of the first images in the film

approximates a point-of-view shot from the seat of a car in the car park that takes up the bottom third of the image. It’s not exactly that point of view – it’s from slightly higher up – but it’s close enough to make the space and its use clear. That is to say, while there’s certainly an aestheticization going on – The International does its fair share of action-flick tourism – there’s also a sense of a world working outside the bounds of the film’s narrative. This sense that the world is more than a stage for the film’s conspiracy is quite clear in the Milan sequences. Take, for example, the investigation of Umberto Calvini’s assassination:

The wonderful thing about this shot is that the sequence that follows it seems to do almost nothing with all the information provided in the shot. Instead, Clive Owen’s Louis Salinger and Naomi Watts’s Eleanor Whitman look at the bullet holes and their local police ally chats to the other police on the site. The actual/official investigation occurs on the edge of the frame, untouched by the film. The film’s paranoid narrative offers one explanation – any investigation will be whitewash – but film language offers another. When Salinger and Whitman notice the trajectories don’t match, they take to the neighbouring building’s roof to see this:

Here Tykwer not only visualizes the “alternative point of view” that sees trajectories and connections that the on-site investigators can’t/won’t see, but it also shows the actual investigation site in a wide, long shot. There’s a world at work outside and beyond the film’s protagonists that isn’t concerned with playing antagonist to them. There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in our cinema, after all.

A non-generic treatment of a generic situation bears out my claim. Salinger, on foot, pursues The Real Shooter, who is in a car. But when Salinger gets to the traffic snarl where the Shooter is trapped, he faces too many choices:

In this establishing shot (of sorts) we get a sense of the life of the city. But we’re still in the realm of genre. Our gun-toting hero must now go from car to car, scaring the shit out of people who have nothing to do with the chase (that is, the film’s narrative) other than proximity. But that doesn’t happen in The International. Instead, as Salinger weaves through the cars, Tykwer goes to another kind of shot he loves, the overhead.

No one gets menaced. No one flees amid squealing tyres. In fact, the cars pull away at a reasonable speed, as if the light changed and they did what any driver would do. There’s a world out there and The International’s global financial chicanery just doesn’t enter into things that much. Salinger’s left alone, confused and the world keeps turning.

All in all, Tykwer gets more ideological mileage out of The International’s establishing shots than most films get out of their entire cinematic vocabulary, even in a middling effort.