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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The White Ribbon

I mentioned in my review of The Blind Side that there are films that challenge and films that reassure--Michael Haneke makes the former. Before The White Ribbon, the presumptive front-runner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, I had only seen one of his films, Cache, which I found intriguing, and due to its ambiguous ending has provided fodder for inumerable conversations and arguments among its promoters and detractors. After some internal debate I passed on his first English-language film, Funny Games (a remake of his own German film) because I finally came to the conclusion that life is too short to spend two hours watching a family being tortured and murdered.

The White Ribbon is no departure--he hasn't decided to stretch his legs and make a screwball comedy. It's a focused, unrelentingly grim study of the nature of evil, but it's much more straightforward than Cache, though no less mystifying, as once again he has let the audience figure out what they have seen. This can be refreshing, as Hollywood product typically spoon-feeds the audience and tells them what they have just seen, but on the other hand, a person likes the satisfaction of seeing a story wrapped up in a classic fashion. After seeing two of his films that do not provide easy answers, I wonder if it isn't a sleight of hand to hide script problems. I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde's line, spoken by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest: "To lose one parent is a tragedy, to lose two is carelessness."

The film is set in Germany in 1913. We are in a small village, and as life must have been like in those days, it's a very insular world. All the villagers know each other, and most work for the local Baron. Slowly we are introduced to his family and the families of the local pastor, a stern figure who lives to heart the adage, "Spare the rod, spoil the child," the family of the local doctor, a young teacher who courts the Baron's nanny, and the family of a farmer, in which the oldest son makes an impetuous decision that has tragic repercussions.

In the opening scene the doctor is injured when his horse trips over a wire that has been purposefully tied to two trees. Later, the farmer's wife falls through some boards in a sawmill and dies, and then the Baron's young son is severely beaten. All the while the village's children, a stone-faced bunch who seem to be led by the pastor's two oldest children, roam around like the kids in a horror film.

To that end this film reminded me of Village of the Damned, as directed by Ingmar Bergman. We never know for sure if the children are responsible for the acts of criminality, or what the motive is. We do find out that the doctor is screwing his housekeeper, while also diddling his teenage daughter, but the people there seem no better or worse than any others to be found anywhere in the world, nor do we unearth any signifying moment when a child receives some kind of provident statement telling them to punish sinners. Instead the evil hangs like a cloud.

The key, it seems to me, is the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and his two children, the sullen girl Klara and the equally sullen boy, Martin. We see them being punished for some infraction (we never learn what exactly what they have done, another significant mystery) and it's a ritualistic bit or corporal punishment. He is the character that made me think of Bergman, especially the brutal clergyman of Fanny and Alexander, but he's also a loving father, as evidenced by scenes with his younger son and an injured bird. Pointedly, he confronts Martin about his suspicions that the boy is masturbating, and goes so far as to have his hands tied while sleeping. He also ties white ribbons, a simble of innocence, to the misbehaving children to help them remember to be good. In a certain way, these ribbons are like Hawthorne's scarlet letter.

It's easy, given the knowledge of the year and the country, to do the math and figure out that the children of 1913 will be in their thirties when Hitler took over, but I'm not sure if that's the lesson we take away here--that corporal punishment created Nazis. I would think that World War I, which began in 1914, is what Haneke is interested in. Many historians think 1914 was the year that everything changed in the world, when global conflict and carnage on a massive scale began. World War II was a much larger event, but was in effect a sequel to the first war. I think of Alan Moore's graphic novel, The Lost Girls, which has characters from Victorian children's literature meeting as adults in Vienna in 1914, and the innocence of those books--Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, is eviscerated by the act of assassin Gavrilo Princip.

As for the film itself, it is a superb work of art. The photography, by Christian Berger, is Oscar-nominated, and is in black and white, though I understand it was shot in color and then blanched. There are some stunning scenes, such as burning barn, or the scene of the teacher (Christian Friedel) walking along a snowy path in bright sunlight. Haneke frequently uses a stationary camera and limited close-ups, recalling the video camera of Cache. I think of the scene where Martin fetches his father's whip and then takes it into the dining room to face his punishment, while the camera remains at the end of the hall, or when the Doctor, after returning home from the hospital, steps out of his house for a smoke, and is then followed by his daughter, and then his young son, in deep focus. I should also point out that there is no musical underscore, a welcome choice. There have been hundreds of films that are improved by a score, from The Third Man to The Godfather, but the inclusion of a typical orchestral score seems like a duty in many films, as if the composer's union mandated it. There are many scenes in The White Ribbon, such as when a coffin is borne out of a house, that any hack director would want accompanied by stirring strings, but Haneke rightly lets the scene speak for itself and all is silent.

This is the first of the nominees for this year's Foreign Language Film, so I can't honestly say if The White Ribbon is the best of the lot, but it is a magnificent achievement, and if it does win I'm sure it won't be a robbery. This is an instance, though, where I would like world cinema to bend just a little bit toward Hollywood convention, and give me a few more clues as to just what happened.

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