Monday, April 4, 2011

Short Take--"The White Ribbon"

This weekend I finally had the opportunity to screen the 2009 Oscar-nominated German film "The White Ribbon". What follows is a "short" review. While this is sort of  lengthy for a "short take", this film deserves much more depth and analysis than I give it here.  For now, here's a survey of my initial impressions of this dark but awesome film.

(Note: "The Lives of Others" was the eventual Foreign Language Film Oscar Winner in 2009.)

It is an intriguing, mesmerizing, Serious film with a capital S, worthy of respect, hard to watch at times, an often brilliantly observed allegory of the roots of fascism.  It's also a curiously maddening mystery story, where it becomes clear that the solution will remain unresolved.  Ultimately, the film's meanings fade into view like the ghostly reminder of a tragic history.

Shot on color stock but drained to a luminous black and white, this is a film that calls to mind classic European "art films", certainly some of the more somber works by Ingmar Bergman, and those of Albert Bresson ("Au Hasard Balthazar").

The film examines the lives of a feudal German village on the eve of World War I.  The townspeople are mostly dependent on the local Baron whose fields and factory provide most of the employment to the villagers.  We intimately explore the lives of the Baron in his opulent manor with his wife and young children; the local Pastor and his repressed offspring; a poor factory father and his laboring children, the mother of which dies in a factory accident; a cruel, philandering widowed doctor who emotionally abuses his adoring assistant, a dowdy midwife who cares for his two children;  and a schoolteacher (who narrates as an older man) and the young girl he fancies for his bride.

The film is built on a series of atrocities that are committed mysteriously: the doctor's injury by a deliberate trip-wire in a horseback-riding accident; the aforementioned death of the factory mother in which negligence is blamed on the Baron; the burning of a barn; the abduction and beating of the baron's young son; the blinding of the doctor's mentally disabled boy; the mutilation of a pet bird.  One incident, in which an older boy attempts to drown the baron's son to steal his reed flute, is presented on-camera.

All manner of abuse is suffered by the children at the hands of the adults in their midst, both on-camera and behind closed doors; beatings, verbal humiliation, forced confessions of awakening sexual feelings, and the wearing of a white ribbon, to remind transgressors of their goal of achieving purity. 

Michael Haneke's direction is measured, hypnotic; the camera is fixed on the actors in long hushed sequences that carry emotional weight.  The impossibly beautiful lighting, the slow takes, the buildup to horrific images, left me in a constant state of dread.  Yet I could not look away.

It becomes clear that every character and incident is meant to represent something else, something more heinous, and heavy.  The repression of the children, and their seeming innocence while evidence points to their possible involvement in unspeakable acts, is like a slow sickening realization that our assumptions about the world have curdled.  Haneke seems to be demonstrating a national character of sadism and duplicity, showing us ever more mysterious, cruel events instead of using political dogma, to show us how fascism might have gained a foothold in a society of repression and religious hypocrisy. 

Haneke shows us how truth is often too painful, or dangerous, to acknowledge, that to do so could change everything.  Notice for example the hesitation of the pastor before administering the First Communion to the two of his children he disciplined, as though withholding the sacrament from evil.  The conflict is breathtaking.

It is disconcerting to hear young children discuss the implications of death, of God wanting them to die, to see these children abused as if a matter of daily living, only to realize that they may be responsible for some of the more horrid events that have unfolded during the film.  The child-actors are all terrific, unbelievably so.  Especially good is Leonard Proxauf as the Pastor's troubled son.  His scene of confession, his anger and tears perfectly controlled, is marvelous.

The Baron's wife, before removing her children to the relative safety of Italy, sums it up in a sentence from a monologue that oddly satisfies our need to know what we are looking at, even while we correctly suspect that the mysteries might never be fully solved: ""I can't live in an atmosphere of malice, envy, cruelty and brutality."  This is the only time in the film in which anything like a theme is expressed in such a concrete way.  The discipline meted out by the pastor is as hypocrisy borne of self-righteousness.  The villagers are encouraged to suspect their neighbors and remain suspicious, but unenlightened, by the film's end.

In the final shot, a very famous German hymn is sung while the remaining villagers gather in the church, soon after Germany declares war on Russia.  (Except for mention of the start of the War, there are no overt political overtones).  The hymn has some powerfully sentimental connotations for a way of life that had started to disappear in Germany. The hope and innocence of this moving song, in light of what we have just witnessed, is an ironic conclusion to this powerful, beautiful film that is yet filled with outrage and visceral shock.

This is a provocative, chilling, poetic film.  It is definitely worth seeing, and I would recommend it, with the warning that it is often difficult to watch, its beauty notwithstanding.  It provided this viewer with the emotional resonance and aesthetic satisfaction offered by films that deserve to be considered true attempts at artistry.

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