CLOSE SHOT | The White Ribbon

Haneke uses intensities of black and white not to clarify by delineated contrast, but to obscure. By Louis Rogers


When we call a situation black and white, we mean it’s unambiguous, often in moral terms. Making a film in black and white (especially in 2009) could be a choice geared towards making the kind of sharp contrasts that idiom implies: heightening tonal and dramatic divisions to create legible binaries. Or it could be a tool of desaturation, drawing out complex, irresolute shades of grey. Michael Haneke seems to use black and white to both ends in his distinctive historical drama The White Ribbon, a film of ever-higher dramatic stakes and equally unrelenting ambiguity.

Equivocal significance is the name of the game here. The more clear a piece of symbolism seems, the more ripe it is for destabilisation or perversion – beginning with the white ribbons that give the film its name. The town’s forbidding Pastor ties these around his children’s arms as a punishment and a reminder of the innocence they should preserve. But the assertive purity of the colour white (not to mention the placement of the armbands) makes other insinuations when the film is set, explicitly, in a country on the cusp of fascism. As mysterious crimes plague the village, the apparent innocence of the children is apt to look suddenly like inscrutable evil. Haneke uses intensities of black and white not to clarify by delineated contrast, but to obscure: the burning white of snow maxing out most of a frame’s visual information; the unreadable darkness inside a stable into which a farmhand stares then unsteadily retreats; fields of swaying wheat, ready to be threshed, with the disorienting brightness of a solarised image. 

Black and white film also, inescapably, has historical associations. It conscribes the story at hand not just to a time past but to the documentation of that time (Haneke cites August Sander’s photography as a key visual reference). The evocative mediation of black and white suggests a narrative authority – and The White Ribbon’s spoken narration may be the best analogy for the particularly pungent effects of its colour grading. The village school teacher narrates the unfolding drama from the vantage point of old age, creating an anticipation of resolution and direction. But instead, the many gripping narrative threads are left hanging, and the teacher turns out to have an unsettled relation to the film’s narrative, which includes many scenes he was not party to or could have known about. When he makes his opening suggestion that the events shown “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country”, it could be sounding a highly specific political inference, or, just as easily, the untrustworthy mumblings of an old man: black and white clarity or murky obscurity.


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