The amount of feature films shot in black and white has overwhelmingly declined since the 1960s, being replaced by a quick growing ratio of those shot in color. From that moment on, monochromatic photography or any kind of technique that goes against digital development has been used for effect, or sometimes cost. Either it being originally shot in color and manipulated back to B&W, either being shot on conventional emulsion film, it has become a niche enterprise over the last decades.
Black and white filmmaking became especially sparse since the 1980s and, although quite a few superb films were made in monochrome in the 20 years that preceded the 21st century, there are entirely new approaches to this type of filmmaking that are worth analysing, having in mind the most recent advances in technology, storytelling and the minds of some of the best modern filmmakers.
What’s more important here, though, is how these new techniques have been adapted to the visual strengths of classical black and white features – and how every single one of these pictures have reminded us that B&W and occasional silent films don’t just belong in the past.
Instead, their possibilities are being more and more explored, resulting in magnificent works of art and visual wonders that any true fan of cinema can appreciate. Please note that these films are not ranked in any particular order, as all of them offer unique qualities when using B&W.
1. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
Inspired by FW Murnau’s 1931 silent film of the same name and as an homage to classic cinema, Portuguese filmmaker Gomes explored the past and the golden era, as well as the colonial 1960s. The film uses the visual aesthetics of a Hollywood silent film, shot in black and white with early cinema’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
It’s divided in three parts, one being a prologue centered around a crocodile. The two main parts show present-day Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a Catholic woman who’s concerned about her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who happens to be addicted to slot machines and has now spent all her money. The next section takes us to Aurora’s youth in Africa, and her love story with the adventurer Ventura (Carloto Cotta).
There is no dialogue here, leaving room for ambient sounds, musical performances and a hypnotic narration that lasts nearly an hour. How Gomes separated the parts is what really stands out visually: in the depicted present-day, the pace is slow and patient with long speeches, filled with vivid detail; the past is fast, experimental, playful even – a reference to cinema’s own changes through time.
2. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
Set in rural Germany in the years before World War I, Haneke introduces us to a village divided in a patriarchal society whose character include a doctor, a farmer, a pastor, a schoolteacher, servants and a baron that owns everything.
The story is narrated by the schoolteacher, years after it first took place, as he presents the facts to what happened – a series of mystery misfortunes – without questioning it or drawing conclusions. In this case, color would never adjust well to the film’s message.
Black and white makes it visually powerful besides adequate. The story’s simplicity and the past are best portrayed this way, and Haneke’s usual cinematographer Christian Berger works perfectly with him when creating clear and bold visuals. Monochrome gives this film almost a raw quality to the horrors displayed, emphasizing them without making it seem like an actual horror film.
3. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
As a directorial debut, Corbijn gave us a look into Joy Division’s vocalist Ian Curtis’s life in black and white, although being originally shot in color.
Corbijn, who photographed the band early in his career, has said that this transformation to monochrome was meant to “reflect the atmosphere of Joy Division and the mood of the era” – which he brilliantly achieved. The chosen high-contrast visuals match the band’s post-punk shows, their use of smoke on stage and the corresponding lighting used.
The underlying sadness follows the band’s rise to fame in the late 1970s, up until Curtis’s tragic decay and eventual suicide. Melancholy is, therefore, a strong subject in this film, which is best explored through Corbijn’s attention to detail and carefulness, while being precise in its storytelling. It’s both epic and intimate, an unusual combination of words when describing a rock & roll biopic.
4. Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
This film is strongly defined by two things: Bruce Dern’s master performance and spectacular visuals.
When Woody (played by Dern) receives the news that he’s “already won” a million dollars, he doesn’t consider it a scam and, instead, travels to Nebraska with his son, who wants to spend some time with him and also prove that the prize is fake. There’s great humanity and rawness portrayed, and the stunning Midwestern completes the frame with its breathtaking views.
Shot across four states, this character study uses black and white to combine sincere humor and haunting beauty, leaving viewers with a timeless piece shot by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“Sideways”, “The Descendants”, also directed by Payne), whose images might make you unconfortably mesmerized in the end.
5. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr has always considered black and white an essential part of his universe, from his early work to the latest “The Turin Horse” (2011).
The story is taken from the 1989 novel by László Krasznahorkai – “The Melancholy of Resistance” -, one of Tarr’s collaborators on three of his most recent films. These include Damnation (1987), which gained him international acclaim, and the seven-hour Sátántangó (1994).
Set in a small, decaying Hungarian town during winter, a character called Prince encourages a mob to go on a homicidal rampage. In a cold atmosphere, the film is covered with tracking shots, centered on the visual landscapes of the previous films.
Tarr’s use of composition is exceptional, making each shot flawless in detail. As any other piece he’s made, it’s a visually spiritual experience, purposely focusing on the study of problems and their origin in a dreamlike sequence that lasts 145 minutes.
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
The Coen brothers meticulously reproduce the look and feel of a typical film noir in this lesser known feature film. If it wasn’t for its cast, one could easily associate it with a 1950s film, where the story is actually set in.
It follows the life of a simple barber named Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) in a small Californian town, and his quest to move up in life. This leads to a new deal possibility, which leads to blackmail, and that ultimately doesn’t go well – as well as what follows it.
Black and white was used to give this setting more authenticity, and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) works wonderfully with light and shadow, creating offputting brightness and encapsulating characters’ portraits as constricted as they appear. All visual strengths of a monochromatic feature are here best explored, while leaving room to the Coen’s usual storytelling vigor.