Not as black and white as it looks

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Robert Ben­ziker I For The New Mex­i­can

The White Rib­bon, drama, rated R, CCA Cin­e­math­eque, 3.5 chiles The White Rib­bon is a por­trait of a pas­toral vil­lage in 1913-1914 Ger­many. It’s a beau­ti­fully shot, quiet ex­am­i­na­tion of what ap­pears to have been a sim­pler time, when peo­ple worked the land and their en­tire lives ex­isted within the bound­aries of their com­mu­nity. On a pass­ing glance, it ap­pears to be the kind of film that audiences in 2010 seek out as es­capism from the com­plex­i­ties and stresses of our mod­ern world.

As this is a film from Aus­trian film­maker Michael Haneke ( Caché), how­ever, life in the burg is any­thing but idyl­lic. Haneke is one of the most cel­e­brated direc­tors in the world— The White Rib­bon won the Palme D’Or at the 2009 Cannes In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val and is nom­i­nated for the Best For­eign Lan­guage Film Academy Award — but he isn’t con­cerned with nos­tal­gia. The di­rec­tor’s spe­cialty is cru­elty: the causes of it, and the con­se­quences of it. He treats the vil­lage like a pot of wa­ter on a burner, and slowly brings it to boil, one an­gry bub­ble at a time.

The first bub­ble rises early in the film. The town’s doc­tor (Rainer Bock) is rid­ing home when his horse is tripped by a wire stretched across his prop­erty. The doc­tor is badly in­jured. It is the first of sev­eral vi­o­lent in­ci­dents, seem­ingly in­flicted at ran­dom. The stage is set for a who­dunit, but Haneke doesn’t seem in­ter­ested in who done it. The po­lice look into the in­ci­dents when the lo­cal baron’s son be­comes a vic­tim, but the di­rec­tor’s eye wan­ders from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and lingers on mo­tive and the very en­vi­ron­ment that could have given birth to such a crime.

There is a clear power struc­ture in town. The cit­i­zens, mostly peas­ants, are sub­servient to the baron (Ul­rich Tukur) and the stew­ard (Josef Bier­bich­ler), and in a dif­fer­ent way, to the preacher (Burghart Klauss­ner). The men are not shy about de­grad­ing and hu­mil­i­at­ing the women in their lives, and chil­dren are ruled with the rod. The only char­ac­ter to ex­pe­ri­ence joy is the school­teacher (Chris­tian Friedel), who falls in love and pro­vides the film with its few happy scenes. The teacher nar­rates the story as an old man tak­ing a stroll down mem­ory lane, of­fer­ing bits of con­text and a non­judg­men­tal per­spec­tive.

Sur­pris­ingly, the movie that The White Rib­bon re­minds me of the most is the 1960 hor­ror clas­sic Vil­lage of the Damned. Both films are ren­dered in black and white. Both are cen­tered on one small town and the gen­er­a­tional di­vide that ex­ists there. The chil­dren in both movies seem to lurk about. They are ex­pres­sion­less, joy­less, and ap­pear to share in a pe­cu­liar group­think. You worry for the chil­dren who stand out in The White Rib­bon, such as the fop­pish, fem­i­nine boy and the child with Down syn­drome, but it is dif­fi­cult to sum­mon sym­pa­thy for the rest, who pas­sively ac­cept the phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse that their par­ents heap on them and coldly re­gard the pain of oth­ers.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this is not a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But don’t con­fuse un­pleas­ant with pun­ish­ing. De­spite hav­ing an in­ter­est in darker ma­te­rial, Haneke rarely veers into sadism (with the no­table ex­cep­tion of Funny Games). He ex­am­ines cru­elty as a ba­sic— if un­for­tu­nate— part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. This leaves his moral com­pass open to dif­fer­ent read­ings, and I don’t agree with some of the con­clu­sions he reaches. For ex­am­ple, I don’t fully be­lieve that the sins of the fa­ther are passed on to the chil­dren, and that ap­pears to be his con­tention here. But it is re­fresh­ing to have the darker sides of hu­man na­ture ex­plored in a ma­ture fash­ion.

It helps when a film looks this good. The cam­er­a­work by Chris­tian Berger is con­fi­dent and of­ten quite beau­ti­ful. He frames ex­quis­ite ex­te­ri­ors of fields of grain and stately build­ings. For the in­te­rior shots, he makes a brave yet highly ef­fec­tive de­ci­sion to hold the cam­era in hall­ways for ex­tended lengths of time, with much of the action par­tially ob­scured by door frames or be­hind a closed door en­tirely. This gives the viewer the im­pres­sion of eaves­drop­ping on the char­ac­ters’ lives without in­trud­ing on them.

The one flaw of the film is that it can oc­ca­sion­ally feel like, well, watch­ing a pot of wa­ter boil. With no mu­si­cal score and an un­wa­ver­ing tone, the re­lent­less rhythm of small town life can be op­pres­sive. There’s a strange feel­ing of dis­place­ment here. Berger shot the film in color and then con­verted it to black and white in post­pro­duc­tion, giv­ing it an un­nat­u­ral, mod­ern look. This stylis­tic choice is part of what makes the film mem­o­rable, but I’m not sure how well it serves the story.

The rib­bon of the ti­tle refers to a pu­n­ish­ment ad­min­is­tered by the pas­tor. He makes his old­est son and daugh­ter wear rib­bons on their arms to shame them and re­mind them of the in­no­cence that they are on the brink of los­ing. This also serves as a re­minder to the au­di­ence as to what the whole coun­try is about to lose, as the pop­u­lace stands on the precipice ofWorldWar I. In a few decades, some of th­ese chil­dren will be swap­ping the white rib­bons out for arm­bands with swastikas. This shadow looms over the pro­ceed­ings, but the movie doesn’t search for causes of the im­mi­nent changes in Ger­many’s fab­ric so much as it re­minds us that the days of in­no­cence weren’t ac­tu­ally all that in­no­cent. It seems like a sim­plis­tic mes­sage to ar­rive at, but it’s one that we con­stantly need to be re­minded of, as we con­stantly fall into the trap of yearn­ing for a pas­toral time that never ac­tu­ally ex­isted.

Seen but not heard: Thibault Sérié

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