Historical Moods in Film

This essay explores the concept of historical mood as it is captured in narrative film, and considers its value for film studies and philosophy of film. Drawing on phenomenological and cognitivist approaches, I explore the idea of historical mood in movies, examining how it becomes manifest in different kinds of films: those which articulate explicit historical forms of sensibility as part of their fictional world; genre films which evoke historically particular kinds of mood in creating generically distinctive cinematic worlds; and films that implicitly express moods that can be recognised retrospectively as expressing the cultural–historical sensibilities of their milieu. Extending the concept of cinematic mood to encompass its cultural and historical aspects, I argue, can enrich our understanding of the interplay between emotional engagement, aesthetic expression and trans-historical experience in narrative film.

We do not experience our belonging to history as knowledge but first as “a sensation [Empfindung], a feeling”. [1]

This essay explores the concept of historical mood as it is captured in narrative film, and considers its value for film studies and philosophy of film. Although theoretical discussions of spectator engagement within film theory continue to emphasise the notions of emotion and affect, the topic of mood has recently attracted interest from theorists concerned with understanding how emotional engagement is elicited in response to narrative film. [2] Drawing on phenomenological and cognitivist approaches, most theorists approach mood either as a subjective phenomenon, expressing the spectator’s affective response to a film, or as an aesthetic element, expressive of a film’s artistic qualities. Mood, however, is not confined to subjective or aesthetic forms of expression; rather, it can also disclose historical and cultural dimensions of memory, experience and time, both explicitly and implicitly. This was acknowledged within German Romanticism and romantic hermeneutics, both of which articulated the relationship between aesthetic-emotional experience and historical understanding in a way that is ripe for exploration in relation to cinematic experience. [3]

In what follows I explore the idea of historical mood in movies, examining how it becomes manifest in different kinds of films: those with historical settings which articulate explicit historical forms of sensibility as part of their fictional world; genre films which evoke historically particular kinds of mood in creating generically distinctive kinds of cinematic world with their own aesthetic features (melodrama, westerns, film noir, and so on); and films that implicitly express moods that can be recognised retrospectively as expressing the cultural-historical sensibilities of their milieu. Extending the concept of cinematic mood to encompass its cultural and historical aspects, I argue, can enrich current theoretical frameworks for understanding the interplay between emotional engagement, aesthetic expression, and trans-historical experience within and through narrative film.

The study of emotional engagement with film has become one of the most intensive areas of research in film theory over the last three decades. [4] Drawing on both phenomenological and cognitivist perspectives, film theorists have developed detailed accounts of the role of emotional engagement in cinema and the manner in which narrative film both elicits and expresses affective and emotional states. [5] This focus on emotion was introduced by analytic and cognitivist film theorists, who applied theories drawn from analytic aesthetics and cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, to the study of emotional responses to narrative film. [6] Within ‘Continental’ film theory, encompassing both phenomenological and Deleuzian approaches, the concept of ‘affect’ has become central, a development that also links up with accounts of the embodied character of cinematic experience. [7] Indeed, one can talk today of an ‘affective turn’ in film theory, drawing on varied approaches that explore different ways of articulating the embodied-affective and emotional-cognitive aspects of our engagement with cinema.

Given this focus on affect and emotion, however, it is curious that the concept of mood has been ignored. Although acknowledged as a key dimension of film genre (by using mood terms to describe certain genres), mood remains an under-theorised concept in prevailing accounts of cinematic emotional engagement. Despite this theoretical neglect, it is a phenomenon that remains essential, I contend, for understanding narrative film, especially for achieving the successful composition of a cinematic world, including historically distant or past (cultural or fictional) worlds.

Why has the study of mood been neglected? There are three reasons I would offer. The first is that mood is difficult to define and phenomenologically opaque. The question of definition is a fraught one, but mood in general can be distinguished from emotion in being more sustained, diffuse, and lacking a determinate intentional object; it is not necessarily linked with action (moods prime us, rather, for particular cognitive and emotional responses). [8] It is more difficult, therefore, to define moods precisely, just as it is more difficult to distinguish the background affective orientation or ‘attunement’ that constitutes a mood from the specific episodic emotional states that might be related to it (a background mood of melancholy, for example, versus a specific episode of sadness).

A second reason is that mood is traditionally understood either as a ‘subjective’ experience (and so not readily amenable to analysis via aesthetic theory), or else as an expressive-aesthetic aspect of a work of art (and so not obviously part of psychological or philosophical inquiry). It is common to speak of ‘being in a mood’ to describe someone in the grip of an affective state, where this is understood to reflect a subjective orientation or attitude. Such an understanding of ‘mood’ removes it from the domain of subjective experiences that typically feature in theoretical analyses of aesthetic response and aesthetic judgment. Alternatively, where mood is understood as an aesthetically relevant expressive feature of a work, it is then regarded without particular relevance to psychological or philosophical inquiry. Consequently, on both ‘subjectivist’ and ‘expressive-aesthetic’ views, mood tends to be overlooked in the analysis of aesthetic experience or for developing philosophical theories of mind.

Finally, mood is ordinarily tacitly experienced (rather than explicitly thematised) in our engagement with narrative film; or when it is made explicit, it tends to be subsumed under aesthetic categories as an expressive-aesthetic feature of a work. Mood offers a sustained, diffuse, affectively charged background attunement that orients or ‘biases’ the viewer towards particular (intended) emotional and/or cognitive responses. A horror movie, for example, has to evoke specific moods (suspense, anxiety, dread) in order for the intended forms of affective and emotional responsiveness (involving shock and surprise, or fear and terror) to be solicited and sustained. Mood is not ordinarily an ‘object’ of explicit reflective awareness let alone thematic reflection (though in certain kinds of art film that is precisely how mood is intended to function). Yet if the appropriate forms of mood fail to be solicited, the result is typically a breakdown in the credibility or plausibility of the cinematic world, and hence a failure to maintain intended forms of emotional engagement. A bad horror movie, for example, is not frightening or shocking but comic or ridiculous. Without the successful solicitation of mood, the cinematic world of the horror movie loses what we might call cognitive credibility or affective plausibility. Subsequent attempts to provoke fear or horror fall flat and are experienced at a more reflective level as objects of detached commentary or deliberate mockery (through irony or humour, for example). On the other hand, when mood is made explicitly thematic (and not just confined to a tacitly experienced element of ‘background setting’ or world-building), it is readily subsumed under certain aesthetic categories; thus, for example, the ‘mood’ elements of German expressionist film, evoked using visual contrasts, light and shadow, ambiguous atmosphere, striking visual or aural (musical) effects, are grasped as aesthetic features of a cinematic style and so are not taken as objects of inquiry in their own right.

As a consequence of these issues, there are few developed theories of mood (whether phenomenological or cognitivist) to be found within the history of film theory. With the exception of certain early film theorists, especially those responding to German Expressionist film (Lotte Eisner, for example), theories of affect and emotion continue to dominate theoretical discussion of our experience of narrative film. This is unfortunate since mood remains an essential, if poorly understood, feature of our subjective experience of film, but also of the successful aesthetic composition of a (typically fictional) cinematic world, without which both our subjective engagement and aesthetic appreciation of a film would be diminished or impaired.

Although still a matter of debate, moods can be distinguished from emotions in a number of ways. Here I identify five features that distinguish moods from emotions, and which have particular significance for the composition and reception of narrative film.

1) As remarked, they can be distinguished by their non-intentional character: moods lack a determinate or specific intentional object – in the phenomenological sense of an object towards which consciousness is ‘directed’ – as distinct from emotions that typically have an identifiable intentional object (for example, my fear of a speeding car or of losing my job).
2) Moods can be distinguished by their capacity to orient or ‘bias’ viewers towards certain emotional and/or cognitive responses (when feeling anxious, for example, I am more likely to perceive objects as disturbing or threatening than would otherwise be the case).
3) Moods have a more diffuse causality compared with emotions: they have causes (to do with our environment or our subjective state) rather than reasons (that could be offered as motivating or explaining the source and significance of our response).
4) Moods are more temporally extended than emotions, which usually are briefer, discrete episodes.
5) Moods can be defined by their ‘world-revealing’ quality: they provide an affective ‘colouring’ that orients our cognitive, emotional, and practical engagement with the world, opening up or closing off spheres of meaning and of possible action. Elements of my environment can show up as affectively charged or cognitively salient thanks to the background mood that orients my practical engagement with the world. This feature is important for narrative film: mood is a necessary feature of the composition of a plausible cinematic world in which emotional engagement can successfully occur (or fail to occur).

A common conflation that occurs in discussions of mood in relation to works of art concerns the difference between a subjectively experienced mood elicited by a work, and the aesthetic mood expressed by the work. Carl Plantinga has usefully elaborated this distinction between human moods (experienced by a subject) and art moods (the pervasive affective tone, atmosphere, or attunement conveyed by a work), what I have elsewhere discussed, drawing on early film theorists, as the Stimmung of a cinematic work. [9] The mood of a work is distinct from the mood of the spectator, even though the work’s mood – expressing, for example, the perspective of the film’s narration, of a narrator, or a character – usually aims to elicit certain moods from its audience. [10] I can recognise the mood of gloomy dread or acute anxiety expressed by a horror film without actually experiencing that mood myself while watching the film; or I can be experiencing a certain mood that does not necessarily correspond with that expressed or communicated by the film (a nostalgic mood while watching an old slapstick comedy, for example). In sum, mood primes or orients us emotionally (and cognitively) towards perceiving or attending to certain elements or aspects of a film-world, preparing us for an appropriate engagement with the emotional dynamics that unfold in the course of the narrative. The famous shower scene from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), for example, relies heavily on the mood-setting of the preceding scenes – the disquieting, halting conversation between Norman Bates and Marion Crane in the hotel’s gloomy, Gothic, drawing room before she retires to her room – in order for us to be suitably primed for the shower murder scene that follows. A version of the film that deleted this important mood-setting sequence, cutting straight to the shower scene for example, would show how important the creation of mood is for modulating affective intensity and emotional dynamics. In short, moods dispose us to perceive, experience, and respond to a world in certain ways; this is of decisive importance for understanding emotional and cognitive engagement in response to a (fictional or non-fictional) cinematic world. [11]

The phenomenon of mood is not confined to merely subjective or aesthetic forms of expression. It can also disclose historical and cultural dimensions of memory, experience, and time, in ways that contribute to our experience of a (past or fictionalised) cinematic world. Among the many questions that arise here I would like to pose the following: how are mood and history related in film and in our experience of cinema? How does film mood help render plausible a specific cinematic world, one capable of evoking and expressing distinctive forms of historical experience? In response, consider three ways in which film and history have been related in film theory:

1) Historical inquiry into elements of cinema production, reception, and circulation (histories of film movements, genres, styles, technological developments, compositional techniques, audience reception, etc.). This approach is evident in the manner in which theorists talk about ‘history’ in relation to film today: the idea that the medium, comprising aspects of film production, composition, style, interpretation, circulation, and technological mediation, has a history (or histories) inviting careful empirical study.
2) Historical films in which historical setting or context is explicitly marked or plays a functional role within the narrative (or else a constitutive and/or contributing role in marking a genre). This is the most common way of describing narrative films that are explicitly set in the past (Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, for example) or that refer indirectly to an historical setting as part of their genre conventions (John Ford’s The Searchers or George Cukor’s Gaslight).
3) ‘Symptomatic’ analyses of films as cultural-historical artefacts that reveal social, political, and ideological elements of their historical context (the study of ideological elements in German Expressionist cinema, for example, in Siegfried Kracauer’s famous text, From Caligari to Hitler). This ‘metatheoretical’ sense of history is familiar from the various schools of film theory that have sought to critique the implicit and explicit ideological dimensions of movies as expressions of their cultural-historical context (film noir as an expression of post-war pessimism concerning the ‘American Dream’, existential reflections on the disappointments of capitalist modernity, gender anxieties, and so on).

We can summarise these three ways of conceptualising the relationship between film and history as the empirical, the aesthetic, and the ideological: the empirical sense of the history of the medium; the aesthetic sense of historical narrative and genre; and the ideological sense of film as an expression of historically specific beliefs, values, or attitudes. Despite their overlap, there is little reflection in contemporary theory focusing on the manner in which affective response and emotional engagement are involved in the experience of history in and through film, or of how movies achieve a compelling sense of historical plausibility in their presentation of particular kinds of cinematic world.

To gain a clearer sense of historical mood in film, let me elaborate these three ways in which such moods can be expressed and evoked.

1) The first and most obvious way involves films with historical settings that explicitly express historical moods – the way a cinematic mood is supposed to evoke a particular historical ‘feel’, affective quality, or aesthetic atmosphere – as contributing to the successful composition of a cinematic world. The beautifully austere, starkly lit black-and-white shots in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), for example, coupled with its rich textures of light and shadow, of earth, sea, and sky, trees, mud, and smoke, all contribute to the evocation of a distinctively medieval world, one marked by religious devotion, spiritual anxiety, and a vivid sense of life vying with an acute anticipation of death. Particular films will employ distinctive cinematic styles and aesthetic techniques in order to convey a pervasive affective tonality that we can define as historical mood: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) compared with Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974); Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) compared with The Seven Samurai (1954); Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) versus Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) (as I discuss below). Even a sense of the future can be regarded as an historical mood. The manner in which science fiction films present the historical sense of ‘futurity’ as a pervasive mood or Stimmung is an important, if neglected, aspect of cinematic world-building: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) are both exemplary cases of how historical moods need not be confined to the past but can also open up an imagined future.

It is also possible for the historical expression of moods in movies to be itself subject to historical change. Two films set in the same decade, but made in different historical periods, can express radically different kinds of historical mood: William Wyler’s The Heiress (1944), for example, based on Henry James’ novella, expresses a quite different historical mood concerning its period setting – the wealthy bourgeois milieu of 1850s New York – than Agnieszka Holland’s remake of Washington Square (1997), a difference that reflects not only aesthetic differences in narrative interpretation and cinematic style but cultural and moral-ethical shifts in values, attitudes, and sensibilities.

2) The second way that history and cinema are typically related involves genre films: these frequently evoke historically specific moods as part of the presentation of generic cinematic worlds with their own distinctive aesthetic features. In many cases, historical setting is intrinsic to the genre, or at least a variable that needs to be present even if it can be manipulated or adapted in various ways. Indeed, the historical moods expressed in genre films need not be historically accurate or authentic (although they must still aim for affective-cognitive credibility) but can be expressive, stylised, or inflected for aesthetic or dramatic purposes. In Westerns, historical costume dramas, and film noir, for example, there are usually distinctive historical parameters, often tied to the details of narrative situation, which are expressed in historically distinctive moods (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) has to be set in the period before and after railroad expansion to the West; The Searchers, with its focus on troubled Civil and Mexican War veteran Ethan Edwards, must be set in or around 1868), although it is possible to alter or adapt these historical dimension in crossing between genres (Space Westerns, time travel comedies, neo-noirs, and so on).

Films that pay homage to, or else critique, specific genres, also have to deal with historical setting, atmosphere, and mood. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) does so as a neo-Western, reconstructing but also critiquing the violent masculinist mythology of the classic Western. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) does so as a neo-noir set in 1938, filmed in a style reflecting the period it was made, rather than reproducing the classic ‘noir’ look, but which nonetheless deals with a story from the early decades of the twentieth century. War films are obviously bound by the historical parameters of their subject matter, even though the historical mood – or related moods – that such films express can vary widely, with differing ethical or ideological connotations (Saving Private Ryan (1998) versus The Thin Red Line (1999), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) versus Full Metal Jacket (1987)). That this is a distinctive feature of genre films is evinced by the manner in which movie remakes attempt to emulate the visual style, look, and mood of their cinematic models. A genre film that pays homage to its generic predecessors can not only be set in a generically typical period but can strive to emulate the visual style as well as more pervasive features – such as mood or atmosphere – defining that cinematic world. David Fincher’s Zodiac, for example, not only reproduces the style and feel of 1970s police procedurals and crime dramas, but also the mood of sceptical, ambiguous 1970s corruption and conspiracy dramas that refuse any clear narrative resolution (such as The Conversation (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976)).

3) The third way that movies can be historical is not intentional but artefactual or adventitious: the inadvertent but inevitable effect of historicity that marks a movie as belonging to its historically specific moment of production and reception. Indeed, films that implicitly express or disclose historically distinctive moods can be recognised retrospectively as expressions of the cultural-historical sensibilities of their own historical milieus. This is true, of course, of any work of art but it is particularly salient in the case of film, which has, even in the most ardent fiction, an inevitably ‘documentary’ aspect as an artefact expressing its ‘Zeitgeist’ or cultural-historical moment. If I watch an early 1960s Godard film (such as Breathless) today, I am not only watching one of Godard’s nouvelle vague, pre-Maoist works but also an iconic artefact of early 1960s Paris.

A bout de soufflé

A bout de soufflé

Despite the film’s playful, anachronistic references to B-grade Hollywood crime dramas, Breathless clearly captures the historical mood or sensibility of its time, conveyed as much through elements of visual style (the revolutionary jump cut technique and theatrical Brechtian interruption of cinematic narrative convention) as through Jean Seberg’s and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s characteristic style, attitude, gestures, and physiognomy. It is not only settings (contemporary Parisian streetscapes, objects, and places) style and performances but also the manner in which we watch such a film with an awareness of its historical pastness that contributes to its artefactual historical mood: a pervasive atmosphere the film reveals as a cultural document of a particular historical moment of artistic and social emancipation with its accompanying sense of freedom.

There is more to be said about each of these modes of engaging and experiencing history through film. Here, however, I shall focus briefly on two contrasting historical moods in movies: ‘immersive immediacy’ and ‘reflective mediation’. Two recent historical films – Malick’s The New World and Haneke’s The White Ribbon – offer fine examples of this contrast between immersion and reflection in historical moods as well as showing how such moods are essential to the formation of a meaningful cinematic world.

Historical films – movies set in the past with an appropriate sense of ‘pastness’ – use distinctive kinds of mood to compose a historically specific cinematic world. One way to do this is through an ‘immersive’ experience of that world as expressing its sensuous and material ‘immediacy’: the direct, perceptual presentation of specific affective or sensuous qualities of a world expressed in an ‘enveloping’ manner. There are obvious representational elements that feature in the composition of such a world: the appropriate use of location, landscape, period-specific artefacts and objects, including costume, hairstyles, gestures, language (idiom), even facial physiognomy (as we shall see in The White Ribbon). But there are also more subtle forms of cinematic mood inducement involving the depiction of movement and of time, the use of light and shadow, colour and contrast, variations in camera movement, shot length, cutting rhythms, the use of soundscape, music, and other audiovisual effects.

Consider the opening sequence of Malick’s The New World, a mythopoetic rendering of the conflictual historical encounter between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Worlds, based on the Pocahontas legend and the memoirs of John Smith. [12] The film opens with an image of quiet movement across the surface of water, accompanied by a mesmerising voiceover set against the prominent background sounds of birdsong, crickets, and water: “Come, Spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother, we your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you”. We cut to an image of a beautiful young woman, shot from below, arms raised heavenward, giving thanks to the sky. This sequence is followed by the credits proper, set against a background of animated maps of the Virginia region festooned with animals, birds, and waterways, but also ships, dwellings, and battles. The slow flowing camera movements across water, an immersive movement through elemental nature that gives way to Western cartography and colonialist mythology, introduces the central contrast between worlds that will serve as the dramatic and aesthetic focus of the film.

The opening image of The New World, accompanied by swelling horns of Wagner’s Das for Das Rheingold Prelude, features naked figures swimming against the sunlit surface of the water. We glimpse a young woman, her face seen from underwater and her hand touching the water’s surface. An image of a young man follows, seen from beneath the water, pointing off into the distance. The next shot reveals three imposing ships entering the harbour and announcing the central contrast of the film: that between the New World, a mythic world immersed in nature, and the Old World, that of the colonisers who have come to establish a new colony on these shores (an inter-title announces the entry into Western history: Virginia, 1607). The sensuous, immersive qualities of these images, defined by flowing movement, elemental nature, human figures set against water, earth, and sky, set the mood as ‘mythopoetic’: combining mythology and poetry in disclosing a sensuously rich, materially textured, mythically charged world, where human action remains at the mercy of nature. The aquatic immersion and mythic cross-cultural resonances between worlds contribute to the mood of sensuous immediacy. Such immersion, however, is tempered by a ‘reflective’ focus on the visual framing of the relationship between Old and New Worlds, which then sets the background for the romantic drama between Pocahontas/Rebecca and John Smith.

The New World

The New World

Striking throughout is the manner in which Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki combine a naturalistic style (using natural light, location shooting, ‘period’ costume, accurate artefactual, and setting details) with passages of lyrical, poetic abstraction. The effect is both to ‘immerse’ the spectator in the moment of historical encounter or clash between worlds, and to reflect upon the significance of this encounter, both mythical and historical: the tragic ‘founding’ colonialist myth of North America. The mood of sensuous immersion and perceptual immediacy, accompanied by subtle historical reflection on the clash between colonialist and indigenous modes of dwelling, prepares us for the romantic and historical drama – a rewriting of the Pocahontas/John Smith legend – that is about to unfold.

A different approach to evoking historically specific mood can be found in Haneke’s The White Ribbon, notable for its exploration of the social and psychological conditions of violence, the historical experience of trauma, and the collective character of responsibility and guilt. It presents a fable-like prehistory of the Nazi period (set just prior to the outbreak of WWI), focusing on the children who will become adults as part of the Nazi generation. Set in the fictional northern Protestant village of Eichenwald, the film is narrated by the local schoolteacher, who warns us that, although much remains uncertain, his tale of certain “strange events” in the village “might shed a certain light on what happened in this country”. What follows is an examination of social-psychological conditions conducive to the rise of the “authoritarian personality” and some of the historical preconditions that contributed to Germany’s descent into barbarism. [13] At the same time, Haneke insists that this story is not specific to Germany, but explores the manner in which an absolutist approach to morality, coupled with a culture of cruelty, resentment, and victimisation, can lead to social domination and political authoritarianism, as we see on the rise again today. [14]

The White Ribbon evokes a different kind of historical mood: a reflective mediation of historical experience that is also visceral and discomfiting in its realism. [15] The emphasis is less on sensuous immersion and affective-emotional involvement than on distanced engagement and critical reflection. The mood is less expansive and immersive than ambiguous and alienating. The historical world of the film is presented as distanced, reflexively framed, stylised and austere, but also emphasising historical verisimilitude in setting, detail, and character physiognomy. From the silent opening credits, the slow inscription of the film’s subtitle, written in archaic Gothic font (Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, ‘A German Children’s Tale/Children’s History), to the shocking opening sequence of the Doctor’s riding accident, Haneke’s film eschews the immediacy and vividness of colour in favour of sharp black and white imagery. This aesthetic decision conforms to photographic models of the past (August Sander’s famous folk portraiture and rural landscapes depicting turn-of-the-century German life), thus signifying both ‘pastness’ and a modernist cinematic sensibility. The depicted world is both viscerally real and historically abstracted, materially dense and sensuously textured; it is imbued with a mythic ‘premodern’ or quasi-Feudal quality – alluding perhaps to the thesis of Germany as a ‘belated’ nation – that remains firmly rooted in the decisive year of 1913 before the outbreak of WWI.

The film opens with a black screen image accompanied by the voice of an elderly narrator: “I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure, and many questions remain unanswered.” The black screen resolves into an image – a landscape of open field, scattered trees, with a grassy clearing in the centre foreground – as the narrator continues: “But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village, because they could perhaps cast an illuminating light on certain things that happened in this country.” The image is now clear and precise, with a rider visible in the background, galloping towards us. The narrator explains that it all began with the Doctor’s riding accident. As he describes the scene, we see the Doctor’s horse lurch violently to the ground, thanks to a wire stretched across two trees, and the Doctor [Rainer Bock] falling heavily on his chest and shoulder. His daughter witnesses the accident and runs out to attend to her injured father, arranging for him to be transported to the nearest hospital. Already the mood evoked here is ambiguous (the narration warning us that the images that follow may be unreliable) as well as unnerving (a shocking, brutal accident without warning or explanation).

We are introduced to the Midwife (Susanne Lothar), a single woman in her forties who is also the Doctor’s housekeeper and receptionist; she is shown in profile via a tracking shot that accompanies her as she walks purposefully towards the village school in order to collect her son Karli (Eddy Grahl), who has Downs Syndrome. We encounter the first of the many children – the Pastor’s son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) and his daughter Clara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) – who comprise an unsettling pack associated with the violent incidents to be narrated further in the film. The schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), shown with Karli, is introduced; a sympathetic ‘outsider’ who is also the narrator, telling us his story from the vantage point of many decades (after the end of WWII). The children, always in a group, glance at each other, looking suspicious in their stiffly polite bearing, and then take their leave, ostensibly to ‘see after’ Anna (Roxanne Duran), the Doctor’s teenage daughter. The camera tracks them as they turn from the school and begin walking away, then remains stationary as they head off towards the boundary of the village – a fact that, the narrator remarks, seemed odd to him. The camera holds on the figures of the departing girls as the narrator comments on their behaviour, thus enacting the ambiguous interplay between what we see and what we hear that constitutes a key dialectical tension in the film.

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

There are a number of features in this sequence that contribute to establishing an historical mood that is mediated, reflective, and ambiguous. Instead of naivety or immersion the film expresses uncertainty, foreboding, and anxiety. I have already mentioned the black-and-white imagery that simultaneously connotes historical distance and photographic veracity, but also adds an austere ‘modernist’ aspect to the events depicted onscreen. The camera placement alternates between static and mobile shots, but in all cases maintains a certain distance, a focus and a reserve in relation to the characters. It might be described as disciplined but reticent: holding very precisely framed shots in long takes that contribute to the evocation of expectation and uncertainty, ambiguity, and anxiety.

This is evident in the presentation of the children, their uncomfortable bearing, stilted speech, and furtive glances, who not only sound but look like children of the period. Indeed, Haneke and his collaborators were deeply committed to maintaining historical fidelity in regard to setting and artefacts. The casting of the children and other village characters was a laborious affair as they had to be scrutinised in relation to the Sander photographs which served a model for how such characters should look. Only those actors whose physiognomy ‘matched’ that of the historical individuals of the period were given roles in the movie (farmhands, for example, were played by Romanian extras who had the harsh weather-beaten look that was required). This combination of ‘period’ authenticity and historical realism, stylised abstraction and historical reflection, marks The White Ribbon’s historical mood as a reflective, mediated, but ambiguous disclosure of the past. The historical experience of the narrator remains an enigma despite having been lived through, an experience repressed and only partially acknowledged, which only adds to the uncertainty surrounding his narrated account of events. This ambiguity about historical experience will prove central to the film’s treatment of the complex relationship between psychological deformation, social domination, and historical responsibility for the past. The White Ribbon’s visual strategies of reflective mediation establish a mood of historical ambiguity and ambivalence, preparing the spectator for an anticipation of the political violence to come by focusing on the social milieu of the younger generation that would come to maturity during the Nazizeit.

The topic of historical mood in cinema is clearly still in its infancy. I have outlined different ways that the relationship between film and historical experience might be understood, and explored how historical moods are relevant for the composition and understanding of cinematic worlds. By contrasting two examples of historical mood – immersive immediacy and reflective mediation – we can see how mood contributes to establishing a plausible cinematic world but also orients us affectively and cognitively to experience that world’s ‘pastness’ or its cinematic historicity. To do this justice, however, we need to explore further the historical aspects of emotion; how a sense of the past can be communicated experientially in narrative film. Film theory, in short, should explore not only the subjective and corporeal aspects of affect and emotion but also the complex historical dimensions of movie moods.

This essay was produced with the support of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, “Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film”, (FT130100334)

[1] Michael Walser, quoted in Johannes van Moltke, “Sympathy for the Devil: Cinema, History, and the Politics of Emotion,” New German Critique 102:34:3 (2007): pp.17.
[2] See Noël Carroll, “Art and Mood: Preliminary Notes and Conjectures,” The Monist 86:4 (2003): pp.521-555; Carl Plantinga, “Art Moods and Human Moods in Narrative Cinema,” New Literary History 43:3 (2012): pp.455-475; Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Robert Sinnerbrink, “Stimmung: Exploring the Aesthetics of Mood,” Screen 53:2 (2012): pp.148-163.
[3] See Sinnerbrink, “Stimmung,” for further discussion of this background.
[4] See, for example, Torben Grodal, Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture, and Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Tarja Laine, Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film (London/New York: Continuum, 2011); Carl Plantinga, Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jane Stadler, Pulling Focus: Intersubjective Experience, Narrative Film, and Ethics (New York/London: Continuum Books, 2008).
[5] See Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (London/New York: Continuum, 2011) and Sinnerbrink Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film (London/New York: Routledge, 2016) for further discussions of these approaches.
[6] See Greg M. Smith and Carl Plantinga (eds), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
[7] See, in particular, Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Nadine Boljkovac, Untimely Affects: Gilles Deleuze and an Ethics of Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013); Elena Del Rio, Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affect (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012); Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
[8] I discuss this further in Sinnerbrink, Cinematic Ethics. See also G. Smith, Film Structure, Carroll, “Art and Mood”, and Plantinga, Moving Viewers.
[9] Plantinga, “Art Moods and Human Moods” and Sinnerbrink “Stimmung”.
[10] Plantinga, “Art Moods and Human Moods”.
[11] A study of historical-cultural moods in relation to non-fictional film remains to be done.
[12] I discuss this film at more length in Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film.
[13] See Garrett Stewart, “Pre-War Trauma: Haneke’s The White Ribbon,” Film Quarterly 63:4 (2010): pp.40-47; and James S. Williams, “Aberrations of Beauty: Violence and Cinematic Resistance Haneke’s The White Ribbon,” Film Quarterly 63:4 (2010): pp.48-55.
[14] See the interviews with Haneke: Emanuel Levy, “White Ribbon: Interview with Director Michael Haneke,” Cinema 24/7 (September 10, 2009), [http://emanuellevy.com/comment/white-ribbon-interview-with-director-michael-haneke-9/] and Damon Smith, “Michael Haneke,” Museum of the Moving Image: Reverse Shot (January 4, 2010), [http://reverseshot.org/interviews/entry/18/interview_michael_haneke]
[15] See Magdalena Zolkos, “The Origins of European Fascism: Memory of Violence in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon,”The European Legacy 20:3 (2015): pp.205-223.

About the Author

Robert Sinnerbrink

About the Author

Robert Sinnerbrink

Robert Sinnerbrink is Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is the author of Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film (Routledge, 2016), New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum, 2011), Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007), and is a member of the editorial board of the journal Film-Philosophy.View all posts by Robert Sinnerbrink →