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A Shot in the Dark: Cinematographer of ‘The White Ribbon’ Gives His Take

For U.S. audiences, cinematographer Christian Berger may be best described as “the eyes” of Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur known for his intense (and frequently violent) films. Their work together has ranged from powerful psychological dramas like “The Piano Teacher” in 2001, to the 2005 thriller “Cache,” which still has critics (like Roger Ebert) stumped trying to analyze its every ambiguous move.

Haneke and Berger’s latest film, “The White Ribbon,” matches their previous efforts in both formal artistry and moral turpitude. A fable that combines pastoral beauty with unexplained cruelty, it won the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last Sunday.

Set in the years before World War I, the young characters in the film are the victims of much of the film’s brutality, and will become adults just as the shadow of Nazi fascism falls on Germany. Haneke hoped the film would raise the question: “What are the conditions necessary to make people susceptible to an ideology?” But Haneke insists he never wants to limit the audience’s interpretation of the story, leaving the viewer to extrapolate their own conclusions from the visual evidence they’ve just witnessed. In an interview with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir about the film, Haneke made a reference to “Cache” that could also apply to “White Ribbon.” Said Haneke, “The film ends in the head of the viewer, not on the screen.”

For cinematographer Berger, that kind of narrative ellipsis (the dot dot dot after the film ends) is Haneke’s finest feat. “What I love to do — and Haneke is the master for it —” Berger told me by phone, “is to provoke the violence, or whatever he wants to show, and to show the minimum from it.” For all the literal and atmospheric darkness in Haneke’s films, its cruelties often occur entirely off-camera, its endings obscured by design.

Watch a slide show of still images from ‘The White Ribbon’ and from other films that influenced cinematographer Christian Berger:

“It is a challenge for an artist to give the right signal that your brain finishes the scene in a way. It’s much more interesting, because otherwise it’s just pornography,” Berger explains.

Berger and Haneke’s working relationship began with the 1992 film “Benny’s Video,” a film that alternates between video footage of an adolescent’s violent act, and his parents’ efforts to destroy the evidence. Berger says that any characteristic look that has evolved over the course of their work together, evolved naturally from Haneke’s direction. “It’s difficult to say we created a common style because you don’t do that in that way. You don’t discuss it, you don’t plan it, there’s no speculation, it happens or it doesn’t happen.” Their fifth film together perpetuates at least one constant: the challenge of producing a fully formed vision.

Despite his humble assertion, Berger’s approach shines in this dark film. From the script’s inception, writer-director Haneke wanted a black and white period film stripped of any nostalgia. Berger admits he can’t quite describe the style or mode that he has dubbed “modern black and white”, but told Art Beat they wanted to use the abstraction of black and white without adopting the other aesthetic implications that go with old film stock.

Indeed, the end result feels inexplicably modern: a clear, crisp contrast with a more richly layered scale of gray tones than the conventional black and white of the past. Berger filmed “White Ribbon” in digital color negative, removing the color in post-production. In preparation, Berger and Haneke studied films like George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” and the cinematography of Roger Deakins, who created the look for “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by the Coen brothers.

Having done much of the shooting in extreme darkness (relatively speaking, in film terms), the lighting looks very naturalistic on-screen. But it posed tremendous challenges on set, and would not have been possible before digital technology. Berger joked to the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy, that he could have filmed from the rear end of a bear and Haneke would have wanted it darker. The film is dominated by candlelight, oil lamps and torches, so they studied films like “Unforgiven,” which had been filmed largely by lamplight. Berger employed a lighting technique of his own invention called the Cine Reflect Lighting System (CRLS), which he helped develop to shoot “The Piano Teacher.”

Berger’s next project, set to begin production this summer, is a vampire movie directed by Ulrike Ottinger and starring Tilda Swinton and French actress Isabelle Huppert.

Editor’s Note: Art Beat recently talked to the cinematographer of Tom Ford’s “A Single Man.”

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