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Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: The White Ribbon (2009)

* * * *

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel

Michael Haneke doesn't like to make things easy. His are films that simmer with tension underneath, that raise more questions than they answer. Certainly that is the case with The White Ribbon, his exploration of the societal dynamics that laid the foundation for the rise of National Socialism. Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has a haunting, deeply unsettling quality that makes it particularly memorable.

The story is related to us many years after the fact by a now elderly tailor who recalls the time when he was a village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in the years leading up to World War I. The village is governed by the baron (Ulrich Tukur), on whom many families depend for their livelihood, and to a lesser extent by the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), who rules through repression, particularly in his own household. The resentment of the younger people in the village is palpable and there is a sense that things are about to come to a head, that the old order is about to be cast aside and replaced by something harder and even more uncompromising.

Strange things begin to happen, starting with a wire that is strung up between two trees to trip the village's doctor (Rainer Bock). He's badly injured but curiosity about the event dissolves following the death of a peasant woman in an accident, which inspires an act of vengeance by her son, and by the beating of the baron's son. Later another child is badly beaten and the pastor's beloved bird is killed with a pair of scissors. The teacher becomes suspicious of the children, whose behavior (and seeming pack mentality) makes him suspicious. However, by the time he starts asking questions, events on the world stage force a change in focus for everyone.

Haneke builds a very sinister tone through The White Ribbon and doesn't offer up any easy solutions either in terms of the culprits behind the strange happenings or their motivations. The film doesn't point to one single thing as the root of Nazism but to several societal ills that paved the way, including the vestiges of the feudal system, which breeds bad feelings, and the repressive attitudes towards sex. When the pastor suspects that his son might be masturbating, he instills him with a sense of shame and then ties the boy's hands at night; the doctor sexually humiliates his mistress and abuses his daughter. It's all part of the strategy of the older generation of men to ridigly control every facet of life in the village. The feelings of unrest seem to grow with every scene but instead of rebelling against oppression, the younger generation seems to be learning from it and turning it to their own ends. Culturally there is a generation between the children in the film and their parents, but that generation (to which the school teacher, for example, belongs) will be significantly depleted by the war and the children who will inherit the power of society will come of age in a rapidly changing world, one where political, social and economic turmoil will make totalitarianism inevitable in several corners. The ending of the film lacks a concrete resolution but that's because on the grander scale things are only just beginning.

The screenplay, written by Haneke, tells a story that is deliberately obscure. The school teacher doesn’t have all the answers and the story has been pieced together from what he himself witnessed and what he heard from others and all of it, likely, has been coloured by the passage of time. It presents us with a mystery but steadfastly refuses to solve it, which some viewers may understandably find frustrating. If you can get past that, however, you're left with a film that is endlessly fascinating and well-wrought, a film that absolutely deserves to be considered alongside Haneke's masterpiece Cache.


R. D. Finch said...

Norma, an excellent review of a film I saw just recently, one of the finest of the many reviews of this movie I've read. I like the way you succinctly go directly to the major issues of the movie, and the way you point out that Haneke's emphasis is more on the "sinister tone" of the events and the effects they have on the villagers than on explaining every detail. This lack of neatly tying up all the loose ends seemed to disturb a lot of viewers, but I thought you explained it very well.

I personally think that Haneke was trying to make a general statement about the inculcation of blind obedience to authority and what you call "the pack mentality" (not uncommon in many Western cultures at that time) making people susceptible to the appeal of totalitarianism of any kind rather than just to Nazism, although that, of course, is what happened in the milieu he was dealing with. This is the third Haneke film I've seen. Like you I also found "Cache" brilliant. I wasn't so enthusiastic about "The Piano Teacher," which many find his best work. The movie left an unpleasantly nasty aftertaste, and I found the role reversal at the end of its beauty and beast (the beauty tames the beast but in doing so becomes a beast himself, taking on her traits) too schematic and ungrounded in the psychology of the characters to be believable. Still, Huppert's performance was stunning.

Norma Desmond said...

I haven't had a chance to see The Piano Teacher but I really want to. Haneke is one of those filmmakers who always leaves me wanting to see more of what he can do.