Friday, February 24, 2012

The White Ribbon (2009)

Das weiße Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, Germany/Austria/France/Italy, 144 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Photography: Christian Berger
Editor: Monika Willi
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Fion Mutert, Burghart Klaußner, Steffi Kühnert, Maria-Victoria, Leonard Proxauf, Josef Bierbichler, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Janina Fautz, Enno Trebs, Theo Trebs, Rainer Bock, Roxane Duran, Susanne Lothar

It's not so surprising that veteran director and writer Michael Haneke has erected a scene and setting for The White Ribbon that is rich with allusion and evocative suggestion. That's pretty much business as usual for him, hefting oversize significance out of the quotidian with a surprising and deceptive lack of effort, as seen in such earlier pictures as Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, or especially Cache. What's surprising is where he appears inclined to take it here, spinning a story that is equal parts Village of the Damned and the whole of Ingmar Bergman's oeuvre, a stark, spooky, demon-seed tale, never settling into anything certain, forcing us instead to take the pieces and attempt to put them together ourselves into anything larger.

In a small farming village in Germany shortly before World War I something is terribly wrong. The doctor suffers an accident when the horse he is riding takes a fall as the result of tripping on a wire strung between two posts of a gate. A worker's wife dies in accident; her death leads to her family's ruin. The baron's son is kidnapped and brutally caned and left hanging upside down with his pants at his ankles. A barn burns to the ground. These events are oppressively sinister, individually and taken together. They seem slightly more than accidents, but no one happens to know any such monsters so no one has any idea who to blame. The fragile emotional ecosystem of the villagers, among their various classes and interrelations, begins to rot under the suspicion.

Much has already been made by others of the fact that a group of adolescent children, with their haunted and distinct faces, are most naturally suspected for the crimes and are also of an age to make them the eventual political base and provide the shock troops for the German Nazi movement in some 15 or 20 years' time. These critics have read into this film some kind of treatment of the German version (or inversion) of America's "Greatest Generation," somehow uniquely given to the characteristics that would serve the Nazis so well. I don't see it that way, not inclined myself to the belief that whole generations tilt uniquely in specific moral directions.

The near-maddening vagueness of much of it leaves the picture open to an array of readings even as Haneke, for his part, remains as resolutely agnostic as anyone about explanations. From its ambiguous beginning to its ambiguous ending, the sequence of events is mostly witnessed and all related from the point of view of the young village schoolteacher (played by Christian Friedel, with Ernst Jacobi supplying the narration) remembering the incidents in old age—his courtship with the young nanny (played by Leonie Benesch) is one of the few bright moments here. Thus, perhaps this is all just his version. We are plunged intimately into the many small ways the villagers mistreat one another. Even as the events proceed and become more gruesome it's more and more difficult to find anyone who is innocent. Yet some scenes, such as those between the normally rigid and controlling pastor and his youngest son when they discuss caring for birds (the pastor's is named Peepsie), are also at pains to show that no one is entirely guilty either.

Society is self-consciously represented in miniature. The wealthy baron stands in for a feudalism very much still alive here. The doctor for the rational man of science, although this doctor is also unfortunately despicable. The pastor, the church; he rules his flock and especially his family with the old-school iron hand, authoritarian to his core yet capable of love. The numerous and anonymous laborers, mired in their lives, try continually to make the best of them. The haunted children are innocents but they are doomed. I think Haneke does tip his hand in the direction of the gaunt gang of adolescents as responsible for the transgressions. But it doesn't actually clarify much. The next question, obviously, would be, "Why?" But there Haneke is even more confounding. He knows well there is virtually no answer to that. Even a casual viewing uncovers any number of glaring plot holes, but that is exactly as I think he intends it.

The result is a splendid, unnerving mess of natural filmmaking. Shot in color and later transformed into black and white, there is an unsettling muddiness to it that only makes it denser in impact. Long sections tell the story by the simple expedient of visuals, with events unfolding in front of us that are perfectly plain but stubborn about explaining anything. And still the narrative momentum is unceasing, like the current felt swimming in a river. There's very little music (what there is is mostly diagetic, homely Germanic classical and/or church fare), which only adds to the severe air.

Haneke's explorations of the inexplicable cruelties and psychological tensions between people in uncomfortable union with one another—let's call it "society" for the sake of argument—have never been more sharply focused, I think. It is almost as if he enjoys playing with us the way a cruel child (one of these cruel children, perhaps) will play with a helpless animal—abstracted and rarefied, to be sure, with distance and disconnection built into the mix, but finding ways to return to images and ideas intended not so much to jolt as to nick, rendering one eventually unsure and tentative about one's very assumptions and realities, not to mention those who surround you.

In the end, almost against my better judgment but as a result of a process of elimination, I begin to see in The White Ribbon something like an old-fashioned allegory for the 20th century. There's little chance it's a coincidence that the events here occur in the 12 to 18 months leading up to and shortly after the beginning of World War I—in fact, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which set the whole thing in motion, is noted in passing by the upper-class characters as a news event of some worrying moment. Haneke focuses on the rich emotional tapestry of a small and inconsequential village, populating it with a startlingly broad world of motivations and behavior, shocking as he feels the need, until finally what we're left looking at is something we already know very well, the various unexplained features and weirdnesses of 20th-century life—paranoia, totalitarianism, brutal random violence, class conflict, all-out war—operating at every level.

Top 10 of 2009
I thought 2009 was a pretty good year for the movies, not least because I had started going out to see them again, and it only seemed to get better as I started to fill gaps later with DVDs. Both parts of Red Cliff together are nearly five hours, a powerful and energetic epic return to form (and then some) from John Woo, and made in China. A Serious Man, from the Coens, is terrifically weird, funny and profound all at once. And for documentaries talhotblond is definitely worth tracking down, for the shocking story, which is probably pretty well known now—I've seen the case done a couple times already on true-crime TV—but mainly for the fact that it's such perfectly effective low-budget documentary filmmaking and storytelling. Meanwhile, you can see that I also succumbed to some of the big multiplex prizes, including the kahuna itself. I want to see it in 3-D in the theater again! I do. I can't wait.

1. The White Ribbon
2. Red Cliff
3. Avatar
4. A Serious Man
5. Star Trek
6. talhotblond
7. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
8. Precious
9. District 9
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Didn't like so much: Antichrist, Cropsey, I Am Love, Inglourious Basterds, The Last Station

Gaps: Coraline, (500) Days of Summer, The Hangover, Me and Orson Welles, A Prophet

Other write-ups: Adventureland, Drag Me to Hell, Up


  1. I haven't seen The White Ribbon yet, and actually I didn't really know (or remember) what it was about. I love your description of it as a kind of allegory, a 20th-century-miniature; I think our cinema could use more of allegory, metaphor, and myth - it seems like only films ostensibly for kids strike a mythologizing note anymore, aside from all of David Lynch's work, the past decade for Lars von Trier, and perhaps a few other examples here or there.

  2. Thanks Joel! I think of PT Anderson too, especially There Will Be Blood, another kind of 20th-century miniature. Tricky to do and lots of ways to go wrong, but exciting sometimes just to see it attempted.

  3. Yeah, for me There Will Be Blood does not work so well as such (or overall, really) - among other things, I don't quite see the past century as a turf war between capitalism and Christianity. If that was what PT Anderson was going for which to be honest rather escaped me, as it often does with him. I'll be interested to see The Master at some point especially given what people are saying about it, pro and con. The allegation that there may not be a "there" there, that's something I felt with TWBB too. But I seem to be in the minority on that...

  4. I think I might have agreed with you re: capitalism/Christianity some time ago but I have been so amazed to watch evolution return to the public discourse as an issue, becoming nearly as contentious as it was during the Scopes trial in the 1920s, that I think the dynamic applies, at least in the U.S. Most of our political discussions seem to proceed from largely unexamined assumptions that are deeply rooted in either or both. This is depressing, of course, and also alienating for anyone who questions the efficacies of either or especially both. I am somewhat suspicious of Anderson myself. I wouldn't call myself a true believer -- very little that he does is unmarred by strange decisions. But that said his movies do continue to work on me. Haven't seen The Master yet -- still holding off because of trepidations (as I did for some time with TWWB too).

  5. True, but what's more striking to me than tensions between the two (which should exist, given the wildly different founding philosophies they entail, Protestant work ethic aside) is their weird political alliance.

    The mishmash of ideology in America, where people loudly assert their adherence to syntheses that aren't even coherent but represent a grabbag of cultural marriages-of-convenience which have somehow ossified into political truisms... Well, its one of many things about our political landscape that drives me batty. (It's true, if not equivalent in scope, on the left too, where a smug coastal-city elitism is paired with populist-based economic policy; thankfully in recent years this trend seems to have subsided somewhat).

    Really I have to see the film again, initially I couldn't make heads or tails of it.