The White Ribbon
Updated on March 2, 2010, 11:59 AM - Written by Tim Buttner
The White Ribbon is a wonderful movie made by German writer, director Michael Haneke about a north German village in the year prior to World War I. Although they shot the film on color stock (Kodak Vision3 5207 and Vision3 5219) it was digitally converted to black and white. They also used digital technology to sharpen the images and facial expressions, and as well to remove modern details from the images, which allowed for the place setting to be the more real. All in all this allowed for stunning black and white cinematography.
The beginning of the movie is set during the late summer going into fall and harvest. From the opening shot, which involves a slow fade in to the country side and a single horse rider coming from the distance to the foreground and suddenly tripping on a hidden wire, to the last shot of all the villagers in the church the audience views stunning shots of the village and the countryside surrounding it. The shots inside the homes of the villagers is full of natural light during the days, and candle light at night and it feels as though the filmmakers used little to no artificial lighting in a style similar to Terrence Malick. Overall the movie feels very influenced by Malick with its voice-over and philosophical view of a historic mindset. The moralistic questions raised about the origins of evil are elevated by the ambiguous black and white cinematography, almost bringing back themes of film noir. Indeed the deep focus used throughout the movie is reminiscent entirely of that that was used in the 1940's by film noir directors. Also similar to that style is the stark contrast of lights and darks; where there are many frames where absolute black and absolute white are present, and all the shades of grey in between. The characters that inhabit this world are not necessarily black and white, but instead the ambiguous shades of grey.
Unlike the Hollywood movies that storm the cinemas around the world day in and out, this movie holds its shots for as long as need be. It makes present the environmental space, which the deep focus photography allows the audience to explore. There isn't a cut every two seconds, and so the mood gestates in a scene to the full creepiness as the audience waits outside a door in the hall as a child is beaten by his father. It is a sound design that resonates "the outsider looking in" feel that the director wants to impose on the audience. Throughout the movie this feeling absorbs the audience. Always present is the feeling of entrapment, and that there is no escape. Despite the beautiful and expansive country surrounding the village, the claustrophobic nature of village is entirely felt. Inside the homes there is almost always a foreground, midground, and background object in the wide shots. The three dimensional space in a two-dimensional medium is always present.
The low contrast shots in the winter are some of the movies most stunning, because the sky comes out as darker than the snow covered earth. However, what is most creepy is that there are no kids playing in the snow during the movie. The absence of this childhood innocence is the root of all the villages' problems. The adults are oppressive, just like the puritans in Salem, Massachusetts when they had the witch trials. The mistrust between the villagers after the series of strange and malevolent accidents is similar to the sharp glances and whispers about who might be a witch, as every person is suspicious of their neighbor. It is the children who are committing these crimes, and the reason is retribution for the way that their parents treat them. Again the black and white cinematography plays the ambiguous nature of these crimes.
A movie filled with stunning cinematography, it's understood why the American Society of Cinematographers wanted to honor it with their top award for the year of 2009, but in the end there is nothing groundbreaking or new about it. It uses many tried and tested methods to capture the stunning visuals, and does it fantastically and effectively. It's a beautiful movie and a instant classic.
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