Phil on Film Index

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review - The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)

Throughout the past decade, Michael Haneke has been operating at such a high level it almost seems redundant to comment on the flawless direction of his latest film The White Ribbon. However, even by this filmmaker's intimidating standards, this is a stunningly well-made film, perhaps the most brilliantly crafted of the director's career. Shooting in black and white for the first time, Haneke creates a haunting, hypnotic power in almost every sequence, with Christian Berger's pin-sharp cinematography, the impeccable production design, and the utterly convincing cast creating a completely authentic sense of time and place. The film is set in a small German protestant village in 1913, a period pregnant with significance, as the shadow of war gradually darkens the picture's latter stages. When one character goes to ask for his love's hand in marriage, her father puts him off, and asks him to wait a year before deciding if he really wants to go ahead with it. "Don't worry" the father cheerfully tells his daughter's downcast suitor, "the world won't collapse in that time," but we already know it will.

Any thoughts of global conflict are far from the characters' minds at the start of the film, however, as they are preoccupied with a series of unfortunate incidents. The first of these involves the local doctor, who is badly injured when his horse falls over an almost invisible tripwire. Is this a cruel, isolated prank, or the beginning of something more sinister? Later, a woman falls to her death in the sawmill, an incident that encourages her son to wreak his revenge on the local baron. As the film progresses, the acts of violence and vandalism continue: a barn is burned to the ground, children are abducted and abused. Nobody is identified as the culprit, although various villagers find themselves being eyed as suspects, and soon none of the inhabitants are free from the weight of guilt and suspicion.

This is familiar territory for Haneke. As recently as 2005, the director made the insidious, inescapable nature of guilt the theme of his gripping thriller
Hidden, and in The White Ribbon, we see how these emotions spread through the village like a sickness, exposing the corruption that lies under the idyllic surface. There are extra-marital affairs to be discovered, as well as sexual abuse within families, and Haneke charts this progression expertly, although he once again leaves himself open to accusations of misanthropy. The underlying thesis of Haneke's oeuvre is the cruelty man is capable of, and he renders it with his standard detached, clinical watchfulness. This coldness will be an obstacle for many viewers, particularly when Haneke is at his most blunt; such as the exchange between two characters – former lovers – in which one says, "You disgust me, why don't you just die?"

Surprisingly, however, I found this to be one of Haneke's warmest films, and there's a real tenderness present in certain areas of the picture that helps to offset the generally chilly atmosphere. This emotional vein can be found in the relationship between the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) – an elderly version of whom narrates the tale – and Eva (Leonie Benesch), the shy young woman he loves. Elsewhere, touching moments are provided by the cast's younger members, like the young boy who offers a gift to his grieving father, or the child who asks his sister about death. These scenes are perfectly judged by Haneke and flawlessly acted by an ensemble that doesn't have a false note among it. The director has filled
The White Ribbon with unknown actors whose faces and demeanour feel just right for the era, ensuring the film's authentic evocation of this period never slips, and the performances he draws from the child actors are particularly notable. Among them, Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf stand out as Klara and Martin, the pastor's children, who may or may not be harbouring malevolent thoughts behind their angelic Aryan features.

What part will these children be playing in Germany's turbulent decades to come? That's one of the ideas Haneke leaves us to toy with at the film's close, although I have to say
The White Ribbon hasn't burrowed into my thoughts in the same way this filmmaker's best work has. Perhaps it's simply the fact that many of these themes have been explored in a much more incisive fashion by Haneke elsewhere, and even though his latest effort is rigorous, intelligent and ambiguous, I'm not sure he finds any new depths in his ideas. Having said that, I found it an utterly captivating film to watch; beautifully designed and executed by an artist in complete command of his craft. On almost every level, The White Ribbon is utterly masterful filmmaking, even if it is telling us things we feel we've heard before.