Friday, November 26, 2010

Review: Das Weisse Bande [The White Ribbon] (Michael Haneke, 2009)

Michael Haneke, acclaimed master of Funny Games (1997) and Cache (2005), has never been one to withhold controversial themes from his films, and most of his films create a disturbing lasting impression on the viewer. Das Weisse Band [The White Ribbon] is arguably his finest film to date and after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, looked the clear favorite to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was beaten by Argentinean film The Secret in Their Eyes. The White Ribbon, driven by a fantastic screenplay and stunning black and white cinematography, paints a bleak metaphoric view of the birth of Fascism in Germany through an intentionally slow-building whodunit mystery tracing several heinous crimes in a small Protestant village in Northern Germany on the eve of the events leading to the start of World War I.

The plot is narrated by the young schoolteacher embroiled in the strange sequence of events that plague this small town during this time. It is recounted half a century after this period upon his reflection. The narrator suggests, “The strange events that occurred in our village…may clarify some things that happened in this country” and strongly suggests that the upbringing of the children and subsequent rebellious and potentially violent reactions in the film was the first wave of Fascism to swarm through the Nation, and a foresight to the atrocities that would later follow through the Nazis. The children would eventually grow up and support, if not found, the National Socialist Movement.

The film’s atrocities start immediately as we see the Doctor of the village seriously injured after his horse is brought down by a trip wire placed between two trees. Later, the young son of the Baron is hung upside down and beaten, a barn is burnt down and a mentally disabled boy is abducted and seriously brutalized. The central mystery of the film is to which person or party is responsible for these events. No one talks and the townsfolk dismiss the linked accidents as coincidence. But surely the culprits live amongst the small town and Haneke expertly introduces us to all the characters in the first third of the film, reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. While we never see any of the children commit these deeds, we often see them punished and psychologically disciplined by their parents in private, and find them curiously on the doorstep of those wounded. As an audience we find ourselves aggravated by the growing pile of mysteries. Who is responsible? Will these heinous parents be held accountable for their brutality? What kind of a world will be shaped by the disciplines at work in this town? The teacher is the only one who suspects the children, and pursues a brief investigation but he, like us, is left without proof to interpret with any assurance. We are meant to feel like the moral crimes perpetrated by the adults are more substantial than the atrocities committed by the children throughout. 

Amongst the reactions of the elders to their children's perverse behaviors, the village pastor punishes his kids and makes his two eldest wear a white ribbon. It is a symbol of purity and innocence and though his film has devastating cultural and historical implications, Haneke's more fervent fascination is with how innocence and sin are both learned and assumed in existence. The children all possess the basic indicators of innocence but their demeanor as much as their faces range from cherubic naivety to splintered repression. But what they are taught -- a strict reading of God's laws -- and what they see are dissimilar and their allegiances become first-and-foremost to God. Their imposing of His wrath takes the form of punishing not only their elders but of a rich boy and a young handicapped child. One interesting feature is the use of the names of the children, whereas the adults are referred to only through their earthly professions, which signifies that this film is totally addressing the children of this narrative.

The performances, especially those of the children, are all excellent. The relationships between the characters and particularly between parent and child is wonderfully realized and some of the most moving, yet disturbing themes are addressed in these relationships. The tyrant-like Pastor, who whips his children for being late for supper, and the town Doctor, who sexually abuses his only daughter are the most memorable. The largely despicable adult characters lose control as the film progresses, and place their children under strict laws of government and discipline. It would not be a surprise to see these children grow older to revolt, and this is precisely why the narrator feels his experiences during this period have some significance when assessing the future atrocities present within Germany. 

Nothing is completely resolved but left open to the interpretation of the viewer. As it is the story of the narrator, he was never sure, and there was never any proof to his theories, so a clear conclusion is not possible. For this reason, the conclusion of the film is entirely satisfying. Fueled by growing tension, The White Ribbon is sometimes slow to digest, but is always absorbing and interesting in its method of storytelling. Some of the children are true revelations, and the beautiful cinematography, the tedious long-takes and the paused tracking shots create an atmosphere, and an anticipation that works very well with the construction of the plot. Each set piece is carefully constructed and Haneke’s attention to detail is perfect. We never see more than we need to see, but just enough to develop an opinion. It's a really fantastic film, that deserves multiple viewings.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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