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Archive for December 15th, 2009

Michael Haneke has a way of fucking with the viewers heads. I am sorry to those who are offended by the language used in this statement but there is no more clear or succinct way of expressing it. He has done it many times before, most recently with Hidden (2005) most memorably with Funny Games (1997); The White Ribbon is his most audacious mindfuck to date as it is at times so subtle. For two and a half hours it plays out like a mystery but without the big reveal at the end. This on the surface could be described as week use of narrative, something this film can not be accused of. What you have seen seeps into your subconscious then appears vividly in your conscious mind hours later in a near eureka moment, “now it get it” or “I think I understand the meaning now”.

One of the great things about Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957) is that we never find out if the kid really did kill his farther or not, we hear all the jurors’ arguments and expressions of doubt but we don’t get the Hollywood flashback showing the crime. The White Ribbon has a similar quality in its approach to telling the story. Set in a small rural German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, the film is narrated the local teacher (Christian Friedel & Ernst Jacobi (voiceover)) now an old man looking back at the time. He explains that the events in the village could explain “things that happened in this country” without specifically mentioning the events of either world war. He also explains that what he is saying may not be true, he doesn’t qualify this by saying his memory of events may be hindered by time his own agenda or that he didn’t understand or observe what was happening at the time. He merely questions the varsity of his own words before he tells the story.

The events he explains appear random at first, whilst riding home the doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse and badly injured. The fall was caused by a wire strung between two trees at the entrance to his yard. No one saw who erected the wire, but more mysteriously, who removed it. The incidents of malice and recrimination become more serious and go unsolved as the dysfunctional elements of the community become clear. The village pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is perhaps the most interesting character in the film. A religious zealot and fierce disciplinarian at home, he canes two of his children for reasons that are never clearly explained. More disturbingly following the “cleansing” beating he makes them wear a white ribbon, something that he explains is sign of purity. I’m not sure if following the narrator’s words I am looking for things that weren’t there but the wearing of an overt symbol, the ribbon in this case made me think of the badges the Nazi’s made people wear such as the yellow star or even the Swastika armbands worn by the Nazi’s themselves.

Unlike Funny games or Hidden, there are No intruders or outside aggressors, the villages’ problems are wholly internal. This is the films most direct statement of Germany of the era. In an early scene the teacher observes one of the children dangerously balancing on the handrail of a footbridge high above a river. When asked why he did it the boy replies “I gave God a chance to kill me”. At the time this did not seem hugely significant but in hindsight it could be a confession of guilt or an attempt to gain justification for his actions. The same could be said for the girl who “predicted” an attack on a small boy after seeing it in a dream. Characters in the film often make statements of the near future suggesting they are totally unaware that society is crumbling around them and is facing imminent implosion.

For all its despair the film has its lighter and more positive moments. The Schoolteachers courtship of the baron’s children’s former governess (Leonie Benesch) is beautifully played and offer a shy tender and sometimes amusing relief. Most of the other scenes that remind us of humanity and humility centre around the young couple, but there are two great scenes involving the Pastor, his son and a wounded bird he has found.

I can’t finish without a mention for the film from an artistic point of view. The acting is brilliant from a virtually unknown cast with little or no screen acting experience, although many are seasoned stage performers. The film is shot on digital video giving a bright and crisp finish with bold black and white images. The attention to detail is amazing with the locations costumes and hairstyles looking like they do in contemporary photographs and films of the time. I understand some of this was achieved by the use of retouching images to remove any modern or out of place details. The night shots are sparsely lit giving an authentic look and a sharp contrast with the bright daylight scenes. At times this style is reminiscent of Italian neorealism but at others it feels more like German Expressionism, these two styles make a far better combination than you would think.

It is worth remembering the film is a work of fiction and as such is best treated as not a document of events nearly a century ago but of the time that it was made. The film is a fable albeit one whose message is less overt than normal. Despite the teacher’s role to bring everything together, the film is still open to interpretation. Michael Haneke is holding a mirror to its audience and daring them to look in with a harsh warning that we may not like what we see. This is not a document of history but a statement of the present and a vision of the future.

A note on Awards: The film won the Palme d’Or at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival (2009) and has been selected as the German submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd (2010) Academy Awards. As a German/Austrian co production it was eligible to be entered as either German or Austrian.

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