Sunday, January 17, 2010

The White Ribbon ****

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi
Burghart Klaußner, Steffi Kühnert, Maria-Victoria Dragus
Leonard Proxauf, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar
Eddy Grahl, Fion Mutert, Ernst Jacobi

Watching Michael Haneke's films is like staring into an abyss. The endless darkness exerts a force that pulls you in despite your survival instincts.
This has never been more true than in "The White Ribbon", an austere drama set in the small German village of Eichwald in the years leading to WWI, where the villagers lead the same lives their ancestors have been carrying since the nineteenth century.
Their patriarchal, conservative nature is evidenced in the way they've unofficially distributed power.
The village sprawled around the estate of the Baron (Tukur) who employs the local farmers to look after his crops. He represents the closest they have to a governmental authority (never questioned because of his nobility and economic power) with the Pastor (Klaußner) becoming the moral leader.
With the young schoolteacher (Friedel) and the doctor (Bock) rounding up the "knowledge" powers to conform a society that sounds almost feudal.
The village's normal life is altered when a series of strange accidents begin to occur. First the doctor falls from his horse and is almost killed after a wire is tied around some trees, then a woman dies on a freakish mill accident and soon after the Baron's son (Mutert) is brutally beaten.
When nobody takes responsibility for the events, everyone in the town becomes a suspect; but Haneke will not turn his film into a whodunit (the villagers actually let several incidents accumulate until they are forced to call the police) and lets the actions flow towards a shattering conclusion that explores the nature of evil.
In lesser hands such a plot would turn into an ominous, preachy account that would dissect society and rely on facile psychological explanations to point fingers.
Under Haneke's steady command it becomes an eerie study of what accounts for innocence and purity in a world that perhaps never even knew them to begin with.
The title ribbon is tied around the village's children by the Pastor to remind them of how they should resist the temptations of the flesh and fight their savage nature, but who do these kids have to look up to?
We see how behind closed doors the adults behave in ways that not only contradict what they expect of the children, but also deem the ribbons as a token of infancy dismissed upon reaching adulthood.
We're witness to how the doctor abuses his mistress (the splendid, chilly Lothar), to how the Pastor preaches about goodness but has no compassion when he beats his children and how the Baron's authority becomes null in the eyes of his wife the Baroness (Lardi).
If the adults think the children ignore all these events, then Haneke reminds us that by placing his camera in the scene we're taking on their roles; we're watching but the characters are unaware of it.
Shot in sterile black and white by the extraordinary Christian Berger, "The White Ribbon" borrows the qualities from ancient photographs that come to life only when we're not looking.
His tendency to leave the camera still makes for some beautiful shots that evoke complete stillness. A magnificent shot of the severe church only makes us wonder what might be going behind the wooden doors and the brightness of the wheat fields in another scene offers a discomforting tranquility: a creepy portrait of idyll.
Those used to Haneke's filmmaking will instantly be filled with a constant dread, the one he's used throughout his career which often musters comparisons of Hitchcock.
But unlike his other films where sudden acts of violence disrupt with shocking flashes of reality, the ones in "The White Ribbon" are of a more subdued nature.
One scene has a child balancing on the edge of a tall bridge, when the schoolteacher notices him and runs to save him we might be expecting tragedy to strike but are left dumbfounded when not only the boy is saved, but reveals that he had a purpose for his balancing act.
"I gave God a chance to kill me" he says serenely. "He didn't, so he's pleased with me" he continues revealing the theme at the film's center.
The grownups, more than the kids, are witnesses to how not only the accidents remain unpunished, but how their petty sins are forgiven too.
What's more, it's implied that they seem to think they have the moral and spiritual authority to hierarchize sin.
What future then, awaits these people and the children they're raising? When the movie begins the schoolteacher narrates (his older self voiced by the John Hurt-ish Jacobi) that the events in his town might "clarify some things that happened in this country".
The obvious path would be to say Haneke is exploring the roots of Nazism but to do so would be to undermine and limit the director's vision towards a specific point in history.
While the rise of Nazism has been universally established as one of the most evil times in human history, if we narrow our vision of good and evil towards the past wouldn't we be too behaving like the adults in the village?
This by no means suggests that Haneke is justifying the actions of the Nazis, but that his purpose isn't exclusive to the country where his film takes place in.
"The White Ribbon" isn't a morality tale and the usually ice cold director flirts with the idea of romance in a haunting love story between the schoolteacher and a young nanny (Benesch).
But just as we're ready to leave the village for good, he once again turns the tables on us with an event we saw coming but surprises us for unexpected reasons.
It's curious how despite the sense of menace that permeates the whole film, Haneke never relies on cinematic conventions. There is no musical score in the movie which makes sense-because life doesn't have musical sues ready before we encounter peril-but also because it forces us to deal with the events represented as if they were closer to us than we think.
We know that we're watching a movie, but the fact that we can't justify the wickedness coming out of it using the appeasing qualities of music or quick editing cuts has a terrifying effect.


Castor said...

Penelope Cruz was on 60 minutes!! I think you can find the video on their website.

Jose said...

Ugh I was watching the dumb Globes red carpet on E! and missed it. Thanks for the heads up though! I hope watching her lifts my mood.

Castor said...