Sunday, March 7, 2010


Directed by Michael Haneke

Starring Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur

The kids aren't alright. Not the ones in a small German village in the year leading up to the events of World War I, anyway. Fed up with both the authoritarian rule of the baron who owns the land the people work on and the puritanical rules of their parents, strange things begin to happen. A thin wire strung between two trees trips the horse of the town doctor as he rides on it; the son of the baron is found tied up and beaten in a sawmill; a barn on the baron's estate burns to the ground. The villagers are perplexed by these events, and as they go about trying to figure out who committed the crimes one of the townsfolk, a school-teacher, believes the town children are involved.

It is not a spoiler to divulge that no answer to the mysteries plaguing is found in The White Ribbon (which won the 2009 Palm D'or at the Cannes Film Festival). Director Michael Haneke is known for purposefully withholding information and clear-cut solutions from the audience. His last film, Cache, dealt with a French couple whose lives are turned upside-down when a stranger begins leaving bizarre tapes, of the couple and other things, outside their house. Like The White Ribbon, Cache asks that you focus not on who, but why.

While the main character in The White Ribbon is the school-teacher (an older version of which narrates the film), the movie divides its narrative and follows a few of the families in the town. One is led by the domineering town pastor, who ties his eldest son's hands to the bed after finding out the boy has touched himself in impure ways. Another focus is the daughter and son of the wounded doctor who are taken care of by the doctor's assistant. We are also allowed into the lives of the baron and his wife, the family of a woman killed in a sawmill, and the courtship of the school-teacher and his much younger significant other.

The theme of repression is a common one throughout the running time of The White Ribbon. Repression worker rights by the land-owner; repression of sexual urges by religious authority. Even the school-teacher and his would-be fiance, the only pure and innocent characters in the movie (besides a few children too young to be infected by the domineering rule of the adult authority figures) are required to keep their feelings for each other repressed, at the behest of her father. Here Haneke is examining the effect the strict, rigid, puritanical rules have the young. The anger, frustration, and shame felt by the children manifest as the horrific happenings described above, and it's haunting to speculate what these children will grow up to be and the atrocities they will commit. As this film takes place about a year before World War I, many of the children will be grown adults by the time the second war begins, leading some people to speculate that the kids in this film grow to become followers and soldiers of Hitler. I happen to agree with this.

Haneke shoots the film in stark black and white, effectively visualizing the sharp structure of the town hierarchy and cold daily town life. As in his previous films, Haneke uses violence sparingly and rarely shows it onscreen, but when it comes it's usually horrifying (the image of a child with down-syndrome bleeding from the eyes and mouth post-beating is particularly disturbing). Most of the time, though, Haneke lets us glimpse what's just under the surface, aware that our minds can imagine things much more horrific than anything the film can show.

The White Ribbon is a challenging, disturbing, and provocative film, designed to push audience buttons. Not necessarily to shock, but to awaken. There are no characters to sympathize with (except for the school-teacher, and since he is telling the story we essentially are him, spending time with these other ugly, unlikeable, despicable people) and the picture it paints of humanity is bleak and depressing. But it's supremely crafted, well-written, and acted. Like all of Haneke's films it's not fun, but it's certainly worth a few hours of your time and a few days of your thoughts.

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