By Ethan Reardon
The medium through which directors choose to represent performance in film is intrinsic in determining how an audience would view that film. It can make or break the reception of a film. In the 2014 film We are Young. We are Strong., most of the scenes are shot in high quality black and white images. Burhan Qurbani’s choice to switch We are Young. We are Strong. from black and white to high definition color was not a “distracting stylistic choice” (Linden), nor was it done “somewhat randomly”, but rather was a conscious aesthetic used to display the proximity between the audience watching the film and the protagonists on screen. It shows the viewers how paradoxically close and distant viewers are to the characters being portrayed in the movie.
The black and white set up in the beginning of the film alienates the audience from the protagonists, the protagonists from others in the movie, and the protagonists from themselves. The lack of color in the film also draws the life out of the character, and wide-panning shots isolate individuals. In the opening scenes when the audience first sees Stefan, the camera is afar and portraying him between two large, desolate buildings in an open street. Stefan’s life appears about as dreary and empty as the streets he is standing in. The stark contrast between black and white is highlighted by the young men in Stefan’s group wearing leather jackets and white undershirts. From a third-person perspective, the black leather jackets help identify Stefan’s group from the loose working clothes of the Vietnamese immigrants and the sharp suits of the politicians. Their clothing isolates them from the other groups of people in the movie. The jackets mark them as a group of neo-Nazis rather than a group of teens.
Moreover, within the movie the black leather jackets help Stefan’s group identify with each other against those outside their group. Philip tells Stefan in the beginning of the film that he does not belong in the group of neo-Nazis. The black and white coloring of the film emphasizes that Stefan cannot identify with others, like the young punk woman whom he saw in the police station. They were both Germans from the same area who attended school in the same grade, but they are both clearly very different people. She asks Stefan if he is left or right wing, and he responds by asking, “Why can’t I just be normal?” Yet he never defines what normal is. He is alienated insofar as he understands what he doesn’t identify with, but not what he does identify with. For him, his life direction appears as limited and plain as the black and white images on screen.
Stefan takes Philip’s jacket after he commits suicide. He choses to identify with the jacket and what it stands for, estranging himself from himself. Stefan sheds his old identity with his old clothing. It is not an instantaneous transformation, though. The other members in Stefan’s group say that he looks like Philip, and Sandro mistakes Stefan for Philip after Stefan takes his coat. The black leather jacket was one of the identifying features of Philip, and this theme reoccurs throughout the movie. The color image of the dragon on the jacket, seen later from behind Stefan as he instigates the rioters in the movie, symbolizes that Stefan had finally shed Philip’s identity from himself and established his own identity within the group.
What’s more, the black and white shots of Lien and her family accent their reality. They portray Lien and her family in their apartment confined to their living space. Lien and her family are ignored or berated by the world around them, unable to enter into it. When Lien attempts to branch out into German society, it leads to negative consequences. When she tries to befriend her coworker, it results in her coworker losing her job. Later in the film, when Lien seeks out help from the same coworker, it leads to Lien’s coworker being struck by Sandro. Lien is obviously blamed by the Germans for Sandro’s abuse of his girlfriend. It is only when the young Germans lose their ability to take their hatred out on the Roma that they engage with the Vietnamese immigrants, and it is only to oust them from their limited space in German society. After the movie switches to color, Lien seeks her coworker for help once again and she is let into the apartment, suggesting that the eruption of violence (and color) has allowed both women to see the situation more clearly.
The black and white stylistic choice also puts the characters on screen into a distinct time and place in the past. The audience is removed from the events on screen. The aesthetic of a live ‘90’s TV interview reminds the more mature audience that 1992 was not too long ago. Many people even in Germany were not aware of the riots of that time or their extent. It shows that these riots were not taking place in a different culture or during some backwards part of history, but rather in our recent past that much of the audience may have lived through.
Additionally, the pixelated live television interview approach places viewers right next to the young neo-Nazi group. The camera is at head height with the teens, making one feel like they are interviewing the group. The audience is still removed from the group of teens but is interacting and confronting them. The proximity of the audience to the protagonists on screen in these later shots is more ambiguous than when the film was just shot in black and white. They can be seen as lost, broken youth or as the primary antagonists of the riots. It helps the viewer conceptualize why the young group is attracted to neo-Nazis and violence. It does not condone their actions, but rather shines a new light on neo-Nazis and provides a place from which the problem can be productively addressed.
It also reflects a crossroads. The lower-quality interview happens right between the lackluster life the protagonists lived in black and white and the moment when the movie burst into color, life and reality. You can see the youth as a group of lost kids looking for their way in a society that refuses to acknowledge them and the direction they are heading. They are all there for different reasons. Robbie wants stability, Ramona wants security, and Stefan does not know what he wants and therefore wants nothing at all. Rather than console the youth, the media brings out their most raw emotions and insecurities, pushing them further away from the German society they inhabit. The switch to color signals the end of the interview and the moment the group consciously acts outwardly against the state that has marginalized them.
Furthermore, the switch from the television interview to the high definition color can bring viewers both closer and further away from the characters on screen. For one, the HD color makes the events appears much closer and confrontational to the viewer than they did earlier in the film. The sharp clarity of the images makes the events and characters seem that much more real. However, that can actually distance the audience from some characters. The young group’s actions are seen more clearly in color. One can openly see the actual effect their actions have on others. While the event unites the three young men, it alienates the audience who cannot understand or relate to their euphoric destruction.
The black and white camera emphasizes the individuality of the protagonists and the realities they inhabit within the same shared space. The transformation to high definition color helps highlight that the stories of the protagonists converge together and react to one another. The color signifies that all 3 protagonists are participating in the riots, but to varying degrees. Martin is a bystander, Stefan is the instigator, and Lien is a victim. This is an invaluable cinematic choice because it brings the audience closer to the protagonists without making them directly relate to and identify with the characters on screen. The primary focus on the young neo-Nazis is undeniably a bit problematic; the story of Lien, other immigrant workers, and refugees like the Roma-Sinti are lost in the chaos of the neo-Nazi’s destruction. While the predicament of the young group is extremely unfortunate, it masks the plight of the real victims in this society, represented through Lien. Perhaps Qurbani was aware of this when he was creating the film, because it was an exploration of his own identity and why he didn’t belong (Fietz). This was a stronger method of portrayal. In exposing one political issue in Germany, he indirectly exposed another. Perhaps the shifting of color in the film also reflects how Qurbani used to see racist youths as opposed to how he sees them now: in black and white, they are distant and sad; in color, they are much more real and dangerous.
Fietz, Lia. “2015 Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Burhan Qurbani (Director/Writer – We Are Young. We Are Strong).” Indiewood/Hollywoodn’t, 24 Apr. 2015, indienyc.com/2015- tribeca-film-festival-interview-burhan-qurbani-directorwriter-we-are-young-we-are- strong/.
Linden, Sheri. “’We Are Young. We Are Strong.’: Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 26 Oct. 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/we-are- young-we-are-833069.