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.

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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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Comments

  • np says:

    Nice interview. I _loved_ this movie. I totally understand what he means about the modern black and white. However it was achieved, it looked so much crisper than any black and white film from that era. Also, I didn't think of them using the black and white as trying to replicate anything from the past. I just assumed it was supposed to be a reflection of something in the film, as in things seem black and white in the village in the beginning, but the further we go, the less it seems that way.
    Also, he seems to be forgetting that although the first beating happens behind a closed door, and we don't actually _see_ the sexual abuse, there is the scene where the father (can't remember who he was now, profession-wise) beats his son for stealing the Baron's son's whistle, and even though the kid is mostly off-screen for the beating, you see the father hitting and kicking, and it was pretty upsetting.
    Anyway, amazing film, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head.

  • Charlie says:

    Yes but showing the father who beat his son for taking the whistle from the Barons kid made a little more sense to show on account the punishment was deserving. The other scenes that had punishment and abuse transpired through bad intentions. Maybe the director was trying to do exactly like what the cinematographer said about leaving it up to the audience to decide how dark and brutal the actions.

  • jack says:

    I found the film extremely moving, and beautifully shot but I feel I must comment on the above.
    How, Charlie, is the beating of a child by an adult, particularly the child's father "deserving"?
    As a victim of such "justified" abuse, I find your comments extremely disturbing.
    An adult beating a child is never, ever, "deserving".
    It is abuse, there is no grey area, your comment only goes to highlight the insidious double standards present within certain families which Haneke sought to expose.
    It is not just the film that is black and white.

  • Burton says:

    "In listening to a concert, the music-lover experiences a joy qualitatively different from that experienced in listening to natural sounds, such as the murmur of a stream... Similarly [modern] painters provide ... artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture."-- Parisian art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, On the Subject in Modern Painting, 1912.

  • nada says:

    I just assumed it was supposed to be a reflection of something in the film, as in things seem black and white in the village in the beginning, but the further we go, the less it seems that waytelecom ideaIt is abuse, there is no grey area, your comment only goes to highlight the insidious double standards present within certain families which Haneke sought to expose.
    It is not just the film that is black and white

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