Sunday, July 4, 2010

The White Ribbon (2009) *****


The modern age deadly sins of envy, greed and terrorism all converge in Michael Haneke’s disturbing period piece. Set in rural Germany just prior to the outbreak of WWI, The White Ribbon explores the effects of sudden, and seemingly random, acts of brutality on a quiet, bucolic community. Christian Fiedel, as a kind-hearted school teacher, serves as narrator and cataloger of a year of shocking events in the tiny hamlet, and reluctantly finds himself thrust into the role of investigating detective.


A horseback riding accident serves as a trigger to the realization all is not well in this agrarian fiefdom, as a cursory investigation by the authorities shows that it was likely foul play that bought down the village doctor and his galloping steed. Soon other odd tragedies beset the villagers - a sawmill worker succumbs to a freakish accident, the son of the town baron disappears and is found severely beaten – and no pattern, no connective tissue can be found to link the events to a central source.


Meanwhile, the town minister (Burghart Klaussner) – a humorless dry sock – berates his two oldest children for, well, not being perfect, and makes them wear armbands of white ribbons as a reminder of their foul deeds. And they must wear these demarcations until the minister capriciously decides that he “can trust them again”.


As clouds of war gather in the European skies, the families find themselves grappling with the aftermath of inexplicable violence: a victim’s husband commits suicide and the injured Doctor returns home bent on rejecting, indeed demolishing, any expression of love that comes his way; while a beloved child with Down’s Syndrome becomes the latest target of the mysterious brutality sweeping the village.


Director Haneke made his career with gritty dramas that explore the thin line between civilization and barbarism in modern urban life. This film is a significant departure in terms of time and space, and the director has adjusted his approach accordingly. Gone are the handheld cameras and voyeuristic long takes, in favor of a more traditional approach to scene coverage. Editor Monica Willi presents conversations as intercut medium close-ups – a filmic convention the director cleverly avoids in much of his earlier work – but the resulting editorial time compression and expansion is used to great effect.


One scene in particular is a stunner. The doctor’s children have a discussion of mortality one morning shortly after the accident. The editing of the exchange is perfectly timed; its pace slowing like a dying pulse as the younger child eventually realizes, for the first time in his life, that he, too, will one day face death. A particularly poignant scene when one considers that this little German boy will in his 20s when Hitler invades Poland.


Filmed in B/W, The White Ribbon is an astonishing film to look at. Haneke and cameraman Christian Berger meticulously researched old photographs from the period, and their efforts resulted in a film that simply looks and feels right. Rather than going the fashionable high contrast route, Berger creates a more muted look – you could almost call it black-and-gray – taking great care to always feature the white ribbons the children wear as the brightest value in the palette.


Haneke offers no easy answers or logical resolutions in this film, and that only adds to the pervading atmosphere of creepiness. Here, the powers of good and evil collide and good has little to offer except a paralyzing sense of tepid impotence. And ultimately, the conflict may lie between those that are loved unconditionally and those who must work for every scrap of affection they receive. The White Ribbon may not be our favorite Michael Haneke film, but it is likely his best.


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