It’s not a black and white case, says Donald Clarke
I f you know anything about Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, you probably know that it’s in black and white. The poster has that telltale mercury gleam, and almost every review spends time mulling over the severe perfection of the glassy images. Sehr gut. Monochrome suits the starkness of the narrative and, with its implied nod towards antique photography, helps lure us back to the early part of the last century.
What problem could there be? We’re all serious cinephiles in the Screenwriter Arms, and we happily tolerate – indeed, celebrate – the sharp contrast and uncorrupted shadows that come with monochrome. Just because some boffin invented colour doesn’t mean we have to use it all the time. After all, some other boffin invented 3-D and we consigned that to the dustbin. It’s not like you still see people wearing those stupid 3-D glasses these days (and so on until this particular satirical sledgehammer makes its unsubtle point).
So, there’s no problem with Haneke using monochrome for
The White Ribbon. The cerebral Austrian has put in the hours and doesn’t need to convince anybody of his art-house bona fides.
But, from time to time, the decision to shoot in black and white can look a little like a cheap shortcut to faux-seriousness. Look at me. My name is Beret McGoatee and, though just 22 years old, I have made an autobiographical piece about a film-school graduate who harbours an intense and unrequited passion for his best friend’s lover. The two main characters spend most of the picture listening to Brooklyn brain-rock while discussing the films of John Cassavetes, the under-representation of Kafka in mainstream culture, and why they don’t own a TV. Film You Cry and
You Want to Die in colour? Are you crazy? There’ll be plenty of time for that when I’ve sold my soul to Jerry Bruckheimer and have got used to blowing my nose on $50 bills.
It’s not just McGoatee who uses black and white as an easy signifier. When Steven Spielberg wanted to make clear how respectful he was being in his approach to the Holocaust, he got out the sombre greys for
Schindler’s List. You could argue that George Clooney’s reasons for using monochrome on Good
Night, and Good Luck were even simpler to summarise: the film is about black and white telly, so we’d better make it in black and white.
Now don’t get me wrong. The gradual eradication of black-andwhite photography from mainstream films during the 1950s and 1960s deprived the cinematic organism of a vital artistic gene. The occasional reappearance of the process in later classics such as Raging Bull,
Manhattan and, yes, The White Ribbon is greatly to be celebrated. But, now that colour is industry standard, it’s hard not to be a little suspicious when younger, slightly self-important film-makers flip to charcoal hues.
Oi, McGoatee! Just because your films lack pigment doesn’t mean they’re stark Bergmanesque masterpieces, you know.
Oh well, at least they aren’t in 3-D.