Old 02-26-2010, 02:01 PM
Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon

Here's the link to the published version of the review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:



Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is a film that has already had a lot of buzz about it ever since it won the Golden Palm (the equivalent of Best Picture) at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Now that it's gotten a limited release it has gathered more positive reviews from critics and even a couple of Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film, but is it worthy of the buzz it's been receiving?

The story begins with a schoolteacher (voice of Ernst Jacobi) recalling events in a small German village in the years before World War I. Strange events happened in this village around this time starting with a mysterious wire that trips a doctor's (Rainer Bock) horse, causing him to be thrown off and injured. We learn of typical village life through the people we meet. Half of the village is employed by a baron (Ulrich Tukur) who is blamed for the death of one of his worker's. The worker's family includes a farmer (Branko Samarovski) and his many children.

We see the schoolteacher as a young man (Christian Friedel) as he courts a young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch), who is the nanny for the baron's children. Other strange events include the beating of two children, the first being one of the baron's, Sigi (Fion Mutert), and the other being a mentally handicapped child named Karli (Eddy Grahl). No one is sure why these events are happening or who is responsible, causing some speculation, but no concrete answers.

When "The White Ribbon" was over, I found myself quite torn over what to make of it. It's a somewhat intriguing film though the characters themselves aren't particularly interesting. Haneke seemed to be introducing more characters than he knew what to do with, yet the film still has a strange hypnotic hold as you watch it. This was the feeling I could not quite dismiss.

Was it boring? Not really. I found myself wanting to know more about what was going on with these characters and why these terrible events were taking place in their seemingly innocent little village. The mystery is one of its sustaining features as it keeps you guessing as to who would do such things to these people.

The film feels like a loose collection of conversations, many of which don't really seem to have much to do with each other. However, many of them do seem like they point towards humans having a dark nature, which is a recurring theme throughout the film. In fact, you'll notice as you watch the film that it is working on two different levels.

The first level is the everyday life of these villagers as they go about their normal business and professions. The second level is everything beneath that, the darker side of their natures. That ends up being another intriguing part of the film as we watch these characters operate on these two different levels.

It's been interesting to read several different theories as to who is responsible for the distressing events. There is some speculation at the end of the film given to us by the narrator, but even those "solutions" have some holes in them that don't really make sense. Some of the evidence points towards the kids being behind it, but most of that is circumstantial. I, of course, have my own theory, which I won't go into detail about, but just remember what I mentioned of the two-level operation of the film.

Earlier, I mentioned that this film received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, which is certainly well-deserved. Haneke's camera is incredibly graceful with what he shows us. His camera is not overly-dynamic, but mostly static, only moving very smoothly when it has too, as if we're one of the villagers watching the events unfold.

After reflecting on the film awhile, I found that I had been drawn into its beauty and its mystery too much to not give it at least a slight recommendation. Many viewers will be reminded of a previous Haneke work, "Caché," another film that presents a strange mystery but which doesn't really have one solution either. There's one thing to be said for these films of Haneke's, they certainly are good at generating discussion. 3/4 stars.
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Old 02-27-2010, 01:37 PM

(Michael Haneke, 2009)

It is sometimes surprising to realize just how different the European school of filmmaking is than that of its American counterpart. Of course, modern American cinema owes everything to the Europeans – many of the classics that defined Hollywood and established all the filmmaking laws that appear in all contemporary films were made by European filmmakers who fled persecution and the rise of Nazism and who applied their craft to the Hollywood studio films of the time. And yet, recently, both schools of filmmaking have evolved and developed into something completely different from what they used to be. Michael Haneke is one of the primary students of this European school of cinema, and along with his contemporaries such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Bela Tarr, the Dardenne brothers and more recently the likes of Francois Ozon and Cristian Mungiu, have all created a very specific style of European film. Haneke’s latest, Palme D’Or-winning film is a perfect and classic example of this school of filmmaking, and it’s just as interesting to look at it on its own as it is to think what the American version of the same story would be like.

This is not an easy film to watch, and not only because some of its themes and ideas get so far under one’s skin that it becomes quite an uncomfortable viewing. It’s a long, dreary, slow-paced film that places almost no emphasis on plot and instead focuses almost exclusively on characters and how they go about their lives and react to certain events that unfold over a relatively extended period of time, for a film at least. It is also in a foreign language that, no matter what, does tend to create even the slightest bit of alienation from non-native-speaking audiences. What I think is interesting is how Haneke exploits this alienation from the audience and takes it a step forward in order to further emphasize his point. The film is shot in stark black-and-white, which automatically alienates the audience because it makes us aware that we are watching a film – after all, the real world we live in is in color. In addition, Haneke has the film accompanied by a dreary, deadpan voice-over narration that, although spoken by a character in the film that experienced them firsthand, is alarmingly detached from the events depicted in the film. All of these elements serve to create an alienated and sterile environment, which serves as the launching point for Haneke’s deeper themes.

There have been numerous films made about the dark underbelly of a seemingly perfect and pastoral American life: films like Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm and American Beauty portray settings that seem to embody the perfect example of the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness, but these settings are revealed to have dark secrets and nothing is as pure and wonderful as it seems. Similarly, Haneke sets his film in a seemingly perfect environment: a picturesque small village in rural Germany, in which all the townsfolk are good Christians who do their jobs, go to Church and whom all know one another. And yet, as the film progresses, this village is struck by a series of tragedies, events that expose the darkness within all the town’s characters. The good doctor who had an unfortunate accident with his horse turns out to not be a very good doctor at all – he verbally abuses his mistress and sexually molests his teenage daughter. The baron is a victim of numerous crimes, against his crops, his barn and eventually his son – but could he have deserved it? He seems to rule the entire town – everyone works for him and he controls everyone’s fates with a wave of the hand, and if that’s not the perfect embodiment of daunting totalitarianism, than what is? Even the good priest is seen to go to alarmingly extreme measures to educate and discipline his children. What is most notable about the film is that, unlike the film’s American counterparts, Haneke’s The White Ribbon is completely uninterested in plot. By the end of it, we never know for sure who committed the crimes that the townspeople find themselves subjected to. We hear multiple theories, but none of them are ever verified. Haneke places far more emphasis and importance on the characters and how they face these troubles; the fact that someone committed them is not as important as the fact that they transpired in the first place.

The film can no doubt be viewed as a metaphorical depiction of all of German society, shrunk down into the microcosm of a small rural village. We see what is essentially the decline in German society’s values leading up to World War I breaking out and shattering all of Europe; but what I think is even more interesting are the future implications of the film. Much emphasis is placed on the children, the younger generation, and how their education and discipline from their parents, as well as a general deconstruction of the moral value system that builds up German society, leads them to lash out and behave in an unsocial and often frightening manner. It should be emphasized that the children of the 1910’s become the adults of the 1930’s and 40’s, and I think we all know what happened in Germany at around that time. Could the film serve as an expose about the birth of Nazism? Haneke never overtly discusses these themes in the film, but I think it’s more than likely that this was one intention.

Although it is a heavily allegorical and character-driven piece, another very important element that must be mentioned when discussing this film is a technical one: the cinematography. Some people were surprised this little-seen foreign film managed to nab a much-coveted Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography – but it whole-heartedly deserves it. The cinematography is nothing short of divine. Every frame is fastidiously staged, down to a T: the lighting, camera movement, composition and dynamics are pitch-perfect, and if there is one thing that must be said about the film is that it is absolutely stunningly beautiful to look at. The stark black-and-white photography lends it an air of otherworldliness; the lighting and delicate camera moves become almost ghost-like. It is certainly one of the most beautiful-looking films of 2009.

As I mentioned earlier, it is not easy getting through this film. It progresses at a snail’s pace, takes its time with every scene, is intentionally emotionally distant and requires a substantial intellectual investment from the viewer; but it also a tremendously rewarding film for those who do choose to make that investment. Haneke paints a harrowing portrait of a small and simple village that loses its innocence, so to speak, in the face of a rapidly changing Europe in the early 20th century. Secrets are revealed, dark secrets, and moral values are shaken to their foundations never to be the same again. But the worst part is that we witness the decline of the young generation, who represent the future – and it’s not accidental that the film ends on the devastating news of the outbreak of World War I.

RATING: 8/10.
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