Thursday, April 08, 2010
The White Ribbon
I'm going to do something unusual in discussing Michael Haneke's Oscar-nominated and other award winning The White Ribbon, the story of a series of disturbing crimes in a German village in the year before World War I. It's difficult for me to admit that I don't have the knowledge or level of cultural literacy to understand even this most German of foreign films, but I think that's the case here. If you've seen Cache or Code Unknown then you know Haneke isn't a fan of narrative resolution or easy answers. Yet what separates The White Ribbon from those earlier works are (for the first time in my Haneke experience) a relatively linear narrative and an overt look to the past. Everything seems in order on the surface; a Baron (Ulrich Tukur) rules the village with a firm but largely benign hand, and the doctor (Rainer Bock) and priest (Burghart Klaussner) are leading citizens. Christian Berger's Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography is used almost ironically, creating a layer of placidity that Haneke spends the rest of the film poking with a stick. The doctor's riding accident and the attacks on two children that shock the village are the film's most outrageous events, but things are just as disturbing behind closed doors.
The widowed doctor is having a relationship with the local midwife largely motivated by mutual self-hatred; the doctor's relationship with his teenage daughter is potentially horrifying. The pastor fetishizes purity, making his oldest children wear white ribbons to remind them of the standards to which he feels they should aspire. Haneke would have his villagers oppressed not only by their economic dependence on the baron (the tale of a farmer whose wife dies in the baron's sawmill only the most extreme example) but by religious and social custom. Does it follow that the children of the village will turn to National Socialism in the 1930's?That's the hook most reviews of The White Ribbon are taking but I'm not sure Haneke makes the case. The village children travel in a pack and seem to turn up at the most disturbing times; Haneke barely spends time individualizing them except for the two older children (Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf) of the pastor and another girl whose "dream" foreshadows one of the film's most disturbing events. The voice-over narration of the kindly village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), looking back from years later, tells us that the events describes in The White Ribbon may explain "things that happened in this country," but in order for that to be true it's necessary to believe that the traumas of childhood in the village affected everyone in the same way.Haneke doesn't prove that point, though the film ends on a note of great foreboding as the village prepares for the war. In The White Ribbon Michael Haneke has put his talents to work on a perhaps unsolvable historical problem and contrived only the most modern of explanations.