The White Ribbon
A Chilly Tale of Pre-War Germany
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (opened January 22 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) added the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film to its ever growing armload of awards that also include the Palm D’Or from Cannes.
Michael Haneke has disturbed audiences with his pair of “Funny Games” movies and films like “The Piano Teacher.” So as “The White Ribbon” began I started to wonder if I was at the wrong movie. Haneke takes us to a rural setting in Germany at the cusp of World War II [whoops meant to say WWI]. The black and white images recall the luster of an old Ingmar Bergman film and some of the images could even be described as idyllic. Was I really at a Michael Haneke film? Well it took a very long time – about an hour I think – for me to reply with a firm yes. But about halfway through “The White Ribbon” does indeed become a Michael Haneke film and it makes your skin crawl -- in an artistically satisfying way.
Eichwald is a small village that seems to cling to19th century traditions and mentality. There’s a surface quaintness to the country setting and lovely blond children. But there are hints of the discomfort to come. The community is overseen by such stern and humorless patriarchs as a landowning baron (Ulrich Tukur) and a pastor (Burghart Klaussner). Then a series of bizarre and disturbing crimes targeting children start to occur and unnerve the quiet town. As we are given more information about the crimes and the town’s inhabitants we discover a town founded on puritanical morals, an oppressive sense of hierarchy, and a rigid power structure.
“The White Ribbon” feels a lot like David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” or “Twin Peaks” in that we sense something dark and festering below the sunny, white picket fence surface. Dread and malice feel almost tangible in this German town. And the more we dig below the surface, the worse it gets. An adult may narrate the story and distance us from its more disturbing aspects of his story but it’s the children who end up bearing the brunt of the violence and end up the victims of the adults' festering distrust and cruelty. As the film moves forward, we realize that the crimes are not an aberration but rather a symptom of the deep rooted sickness infecting the community, a sickness sprung from the hypocrisy, anxiety, and need for control that this community is founded on.
Since this film is about, among other things, hypocrisy, you could say that Haneke spends considerable time playing the hypocrite as he paints the picture-perfect façade of this community. He is showing us what the stern community leaders want us to see. This first half of the film is like a false film, something very unlike anything Haneke has done before. The only similarity to his previous work is in the cold, dissecting tone he takes. But as the crimes pile up, the film reveals more of both Haneke and the true nature of the town. Then about an hour or so into the film there’s a quiet but utterly brutal scene – something akin to what Neil LaBute did in "In the Company of Men" – in which a verbal exchange between two characters proves crueler and more disturbing than any physical violence or abuse could.
But spending so much time with the “false” film is somewhat frustrating. It feels like the wrong reel is threaded up and then the projectionist finally realizes the mistake and changes to the right reel but you’ve already been sitting there for almost an hour. Haneke could have achieved his goal of setting up the village's facade in a more efficient manner.
Haneke, even at his best, is an acquired taste. He likes to push viewers’ buttons and he seems to approach films more as experiments or controlled studies than as engaging and compelling narratives. So he does little to please viewers, preferring instead to challenge them. In that respect, he's a provocative filmmaker and his films stir discussion and controversy. In “The White Ribbon,” though, he shows – in the pastor’s young son – some of the first signs of a thawing in his icy demeanor. The young boy displays a certain sweetness of spirit and Haneke actually acknowledges that and even respects it, something I don’t recall in his earlier works.
“The White Ribbon” (rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality and in German, Italian and Polish with English subtitles) has some unnerving, squirmy Haneke moments that expose the potentially dark and dangerous side effects of a society founded on hypocrisy, oppression, and mistrust. But this coldly calculated work takes too much time to really get going and to get to what Haneke is really interesting in dissecting.
Companion viewing: “The Piano Teacher,” “In the Company of Men,” “The Shape of Things”
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