A Conversation with Christian Berger, Cinematographer of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon
What tricks did you use to visually bring the audience back to early 20th Century Germany?
You think it looks like that? I don't think so! Because we used the last generation of color negatives, because that kind of materials are really the top level, and the black and white negatives have no progression. The grading is much more than in a color negative. Each little color is a gray tone on a scale. So I was very happy in the end to use the color negative. The whole post-production is digital anyway, so we could bring together the best of both worlds -- from the analog worlds, the color negatives, and the digital world, concerning scanning, grading, selecting lighting contrasts. We could use a lot of possibilities that the earlier days never had.
So maybe that's what you mean by a "modern black and white" film.
If you really see side-by-side, it's a big difference. But of course it's not important. Story is always priority, and nobody in the audience will analyze what happens, but it makes a different taste, no?
All I can say is, not being a particularly technical person when it comes to these matters, was that it looked incredibly beautiful. Any shot could be frozen and put on a wall.
And I definitely got a good look at it as I got there late and had to take a seat in the front row. My neck hurt but my eyes were happy.
[Laughs] Yeah. Good.
One thing Haneke seems to do a lot is to let the camera remain very stagnant and let the scenes play out in front of it.
Yeah. It looks like that, but very often there's nevertheless a shooting list. But it's very subtle, so you don't realize there's been a cut.
Could you offer an example of a simple-looking scene that was actually very technically complex to shoot?
Yes -- the very strong scene, the dialogue between the little boy and his sister about death. Do you remember that?
In that twilight kitchen atmosphere, it was many shots, but it looks quite simple and clear. Of course, with a kid it's not easy to shoot, and we had difficulty with lighting. We were depending on daylight, and it was thunderstorming outside, and the branches on the windows were slapping around, and there you have this kid, and yeah -- sensitive scene. But I think it came out moving, no?
It was a beautiful scene. It's stuck with me, and I imagine it would stick with anyone who sees it. Could you talk about Haneke's use of close-ups?
I don't think it's extreme close-ups, because it was in relation to the normal shots. It's not the close-ups you are used to in normally shot movies. We have much closer faces. Maybe it felt that way to you, and that's good. The lighting on those figures was modest -- tender, even, if I might say that. No harsh lights; they were very modulated, more like a painter.
There were many scenes that were very difficult to watch for an audience. I wonder were they difficult to shoot?
Which scenes do you mean?
Scenes of corporal punishment inflicted upon children, and a scene involving the sexual abuse of a child.
It doesn't happen in the camera. It happens in your brain, because it's just evoked. You never see it really. So we didn't shoot it, it doesn't happen in front of the camera. In the punishment of the boy, the door closes and you just hear a few screams. In the father-daughter scene, you see nothing in that moment. But you imagine it, because of the script and the actors' reactions. But the injuries on the mongoloid boy -- those wounds were added digitally.
Right -- that was another very upsetting scene. Can we speak for a moment about Caché? I assume that since you were the cinematographer, you also shot the videotapes that were delivered to the family.
Yes, of course.
What were Haneke's directions to you in filming those? Did he tell you who was shooting them? Did that help you create them? They're surrounded by so much mystery.
You know the basic idea behind the camera work was that you should not be able to tell the quality between the tapes and the reality. So were all shooting in HD -- even the tapes -- producing one level of quality.
So there was no differentiation from the normal scenes.
No, we didn't want that. The first script from Michael said there should be the same look between the tapes and the real scenes. That's why we chose HD. It gave us the chance to have that video look. We didn't use 35mm for that reason.
Did making those tapes have any kind of personal effect on you?
Not really, no. Except that it was shitty shooting with that HD rig. [Laughs] "Permanent out of order."
You had a lot of technical problems?
Yes. Definitely. And you know Sony was supporting zero. Zero. It's really a shitty company. They only can say, "The future is now," but that's it. We had problems, but we were content with the result in the end.
It was very affecting for me, and I was wondering how it felt to shoot them. But I guess when you're making the film --
You don't feel like that. That's the thing about Haneke's script. The tension is created in a laconic style of images. In other words it's the brain of the spectator that creates high tension. Because you see something but you never see it really. It's never concrete there. It's only provoked. ♦
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