A Conversation with Christian Berger, Cinematographer of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon
Cinematographer Christian Berger has been Michael Haneke's eye for many of that director's most critically acclaimed and talked about films, beginning with 1992's Benny's Video and continuing through 2001's The Piano Teacher and 2005's Caché. With this year's Palme d'Or-winning The White Ribbon, both men have taken a major aesthetic detour from the paranoid postmodern landscapes that characterized their previous efforts, landing instead in pre-WWI Germany, in an agrarian village full of dark secrets. Shooting in black and white with an assured hand, Berger paints stunning monochromatic landscapes, portraits and still lifes of a society savoring its last moments of innocence. We spoke by phone to Berger yesterday from his home in Austria.
CHRISTIAN BERGER: May I ask you a question? For me it's a kind of shock that we are so well received, especially in the States. Is there a kind of saturation from the conventional style of film over there? Why do you think it's that way? Even for Europeans it's a difficult film. It's, you know, really not a blockbuster.
MOVIELINE: Well it doesn't open here until November, but there's been a lot of interest, first of all because Mr. Haneke has developed a real cult following over the years.
But it's so different, that's what I mean. So different from the usual cinema.
Do you mean different from the film's he'd done until now? Or from all films in general.
No, all films -- especially from the States maybe.
There's definitely an audience for it, though. And of course the Cannes win and its reception at various festivals only fed the curiosity. I know I was extremely eager to see it and I loved it.
Fine. So we'll do an interview with you. [Laughs]
The White Ribbon is so different from the other films you've shot for Haneke. Why did you choose black and white?
It was our goal to make not black and white because it's 1914, or to evoke a kind of nostalgia, or to fake something authentic. It was actually to create a strong abstraction. Michael Haneke said, of course all the photos and film of that time are in black and white. But we didn't want to recreate that black and white. I hope it worked, because it's a kind of modern black and white, even if I don't know what it means.
Well, I have to ask -- what is the definition of a modern black and white film?
I don't know. I don't know. I can only say it's not nostalgia, or a copy of the styles from that time.
So you weren't trying to pay homage to older films like the Italian Neo-Realists, or films of that nature?
I don't think so. Of course we were watching Bergman but we were also watching Clint Eastwood's -- how is it called, Unforgiven? Because they used a lot of oil lamps. It wasn't in black and white, but they used oil lamps. Even with the new technologies, at the beginning we were forced to use color negative because of some contract conditions coming from TV stations.
So there's a color version of the film somewhere?
No no no. Fortunately not. But at the beginning it was done as a condition that we have to do it in case of. But I think now with the success of the film, they've shut up, and said we're all very courageous, I don't know. For the moment it's only in black and white. And all the lighting was done for black and white.
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