Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The White Ribbon

This film by one of international cinema's most interesting filmmakers Michael Haneke, (Hidden, Code Unknown), is above all else absolutely stunning to look at. It takes place in a rural German village just before World War I and fulfills all my (facile but workable) beliefs about the creepy, evil nature of small town life, as well as confirms my philosophy that nothing ever changes, you reap what you sew, and truth is a matter of perspective. Unfortunately, his film (intentionally?) also fed into to my pre-conceived ideas about Germany and Germans, (even though I know this story could have taken place in any small village anywhere in the world), which I wish had been challenged not upheld. Luckily, Haneke's filmmaking is so delicate that the potentially worn-out ideas which permeate his film do not weary the experience but essentially become the movie. Filmed in an utterly gorgeous pellucid monochrome (got that from the BFI's film notes, who in turn got it from Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian), the film contains a shot that lasts for maybe three minutes that is an artwork unto itself: a peasant woman dies when she falls through the rotted floor of one of the Baron's farm buildings during the harvest. Her body is brought back to her humble dwelling and laid on her wooden bed which occupies most of a small room. The shot, which occupied perhaps 3 or 4 minutes of the film is made with a steady camera positioned just outside the door to the bedroom. All we can see is the wall on the far side of the room which is a mural of faded and chipped paint, and the lower quarter of the bed with the dead woman's feet which are being washed by another peasant woman. The husband abruptly comes into the frame, obviously seeing his dead wife for the first time, brusquely tells the foot-washing woman to get out, then stares for some time off-screen in the direction of his wife's face. If for nothing else, the film should be seen for this bit of footage alone which, in turn, should be put on a loop, framed, and hung in a museum. It is a trandscendent moment of superior filmmaking where the form reveals itself as capable of the greatest art.
There is a lot to say about this film but I suppose the issue I had with it is really my own--surpise, surprise. Inevitably a film made about creepy, evil German children and their even more creepy, evil elders set pre World War I will link ahead to the Nazis, Nazi youth, the Holocaust. I was not happy about this link--whether Haneke intended it or not--because it is entirely too facile an idea. If he's trying to present some sort of archeology of Nazism then his film, for me fails, on the conceptual level. Evil, perversion, the sins of the fathers (because here it is the men who are predominantly evil, the women complicit only by their passivity which, despite my positive female prejudices, hardly rings true) manifesting themselves even more hideously in the sons and daughters are things not unique to Germany. In the film, Haneke also sets up an opposition between the oppressive German and the more romantic, fun-loving Italian, a spurious and again, facile juxtaposition, (again upholding instead of challenging our preconceived notions of national identity) especially if you remember that Italy's relationship to fascism is long and enduring. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that the film felt very masochistic to me, and not in a good truthful way but more as a defense against truth--which is indeed Haneke's point, since the film is told in retrospect from the point of view of the school teacher. The how and why of the Holocaust will eternally evade us, but this film like so much art made about the subject, continues to evade the evasion, even perhaps in its attempt not to do so. Nevertheless, this is certainly one of the best films of the year.


  1. Now I REALLY have to go see it; you described the end scene so compellingly it triggered memories of reading the finale of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea - a link there, somewhere? Haneke has always been one of my personal favorites...

  2. Gorgeously shot, composed and acted. Americans don't make films this well. Not anymore. Sadly, Haneke weaves this work with a tired take on Protestant repression (Bergman et al.) that eventually left me watching the style and performances without any curiosity. Still, a stunning film.

  3. "Tired take on Protestant repression," is precisely right. So many aspects of this film really were dressed up regurgitation but still, as you say, stunning to watch.