The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)
Articulating why I love Michael Haneke films so much is difficult. I’m not sure why I saw Funny Games three times. Or why The Piano Teacher got a five star rating from me on Netflix. There’s no comfort or solace found in his work. I didn’t walk away from Cache feeling uplifted. I suppose it’s the fact that among all the directors working today, his movies are, for me, the most thought-provoking. I leave the theatre with more questions than answers. Sometimes it’s totally aggravating, like in Time of the Wolf, and sometimes it’s part of the fun, like in The Seventh Continent. With all this in mind, I wasn’t quite sure how to prepare myself for The White Ribbon. Clearly, the folks at Cannes loved it (I hold the Palm d’Or in higher regard than the Oscars these days). The trailer gives away nothing. And I wouldn’t have wanted to go into the film in any other way.
The film is narrated by a man in old age, who is the school teacher in the story. He admits upfront that the stories he’s about to unfold may be embellished since he didn’t witness them all himself, and facts could be heresay. He tells of the events in a fictional village in Germany in the years of 1913, and 1914. A string of strange and horrible events occurs, and there isn’t even a hint of who’s behind them. Enough time is given between each incident that the village people almost forget. Children are kidnapped and beaten, only to be found hours later tied up somewhere, a thin wire is stretched between two trees to trip galloping horses.
Among these characters that Haneke creates (he also penned the screenplay), there are some seriously scary people. There’s the scandalous doctor that treats the woman that loves him (and her retarded child) worse than any farm animal, and molests his daughter. There’s the priest that whips his children and tells his fourteen year-old-son that if he doesn’t stop masturbating, he well go insane, and pustules will consume his body until he dies (the priest swears he witnessed this himself once). The town steward beats his son to a bloody pulp because the boy didn’t play well with others. The list goes on. Don’t let these descriptions give you a false impression of the film. Like all of Haneke’s work, most of the objectionable subject matter take place off screen (many times in that same Brechtian-style that Godard embraced), behind closed doors, or is alluded to in conversation. The children here are either victims of a frighteningly violent village, or the source of all the troubles. Their dulled smiles, perfect manners, and strict obedience comes off extremely chilling. In 30 years, these young folks will be the leaders in Germany… This seems too intentional to be a coincidence.
Saying to much would be doing any that are considering watching The White Ribbon a disservice. Haneke has achieved a masterpiece with this film. Shot in staggeringly beautiful black and white tones, every single frame could be in a coffee table photography book. Surely this is thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger, who’s worked with Haneke on almost all of his projects. Besides the pure visual aspect of the film, there’s the dialogue. It’s precision is astonishing, almost artfully composed. Haneke has never been concerned with using false attempts to speed up plot, or build suspense. His talent comes from letting the story unfold at its own pace, until you’re sucked in, and it’s too late (the frog in boiling water comes to mind here), and you’re enveloped in this world of dread.