REVIEW: “The White Ribbon” (***1/2)

Posted by · 2:05 pm · October 22nd, 2009

The White RibbonLondon Film Festival

With apologies to Pete Townshend, the kids are most certainly not alright.

Such is the message we seem to be gleaning from the cinema of 2009, as a vast range of unrelated titles – “Precious,” “Coraline,” “Dogtooth,” “Antichrist,” “Fish Tank,” even “An Education” – appear united in visiting the physical and/or psychological damage wrought upon children by either obliviously or maliciously neglectful parents, in some cases planting the seeds of trauma for further generations.

No film this year, however, addresses the matter with more thematic exactitude and near-scientific scrutiny than Michael Haneke’s grimly riveting “The White Ribbon,” a film which differs from the ones previously mentioned by taking an entire community, as opposed to a solitary family, as its allegorical subject. More expansive in its focus than any previous Haneke work, it nonetheless surprises with the intimacy of its gaze and the social responsibility of its treatise.

Eternally fascinated by human behaviour, yet never a director much associated with the humane – his trademark chilliness reaching new heights (or depths, if you prefer) with last year’s “Funny Games” remake, which treated its papery characters with even more diagrammatic dispassion than the 1997 original – Haneke finally marries these two approaches here, empathizing with its considerable ensemble of characters even as it dissects them.

It would be a stretch to call a film this formally ascetic, not to mention narratively steeped in suffering, “warm,” but there is an arm’s-length compassion to its study of domestic calm dissolving across a range of neighboring households, under the cumulative weight of spite and suspicion.

Extravagant ambition notwithstanding, “The White Ribbon” is not Haneke’s most challenging film, nor his most aesthetically rigorous – both titles I would hand to his 2005 chef d’oeuvre “Caché” – but it is both his most emotionally involved and involving, not to mention his most purely beautiful. As a fellow scribe remarked to me after the screening, “It’s even got romance! And no one is punished for it!”

The White RibbonThat may account for why this of all Haneke’s films finally united enough opinion to grant him the Palme d’Or he had long been promised (as well as to install it as an unlikely Oscar favorite), but it doesn’t make it any less austere or frightening a work than we’ve come to expect from the Austrian auteur.

Empathy is not to be mistaken for kindness, after all, and “The White Ribbon” features several scenes of stunning pain and cruelty – equivalent to the gasp-inducing jolts delivered in “Caché,” “The Piano Teacher” or “Funny Games,” but all the more upsetting for placing children at their center.

The intricate, episodic narrative unfolds over a period of several months in a Protestant village in rural Germany in 1913 and 1914, on the very cusp of World War One. Its docile, if not terribly happy, population functions soundly enough until a series of intangibly linked incidents of violence and destruction indicate a burgeoning strain of anonymous malevolence in the community: the village doctor is tripped on horseback, a season’s worth of cabbage is shredded in the field, a young boy is brutally attacked.

As mass paranoia causes the entire village to shift on its moral axis, our perspective on the events is guided by its most benevolent inhabitant, the shy local schoolteacher, who gradually pieces together a truth both horrifying and blindingly obvious. His reflective narration lends the impression of nostalgia until it becomes clear his story will have no moral and no resolution; the device is but one way in which the film proves a Transatlantic counterpart to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the classic frieze of American small-town life that also informed Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.”

Wilder is but one thread in the film’s dense tapestry of influences: many have picked up visual and structural ties with Ingmar Bergman, most obviously in the punishing spiritual concerns of the Swede’s Trilogy of Faith, though closer to home, there’s a healthy dose of twisted 1950s Heimatfilme in the mix. Christian Berger’s exquisite monochrome lensing, meanwhile, recalls Sven Nykvist in its shadowplay as much as it does the stark landscape photography of Ansel Adams or the interior paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi.

The White RibbonThe range of influences is appropriate for a film so open to universal interpretation. Much has been made of how the narrative lays the foundations of fascism in future German generations – and the knowledge of what is to come as they grow up certainly adds a horrifying frisson to the children’s increasingly hostile interactions – but it needn’t be read so specifically. The domino effect of parental abuse and childhood repression in “The White Ribbon” speaks to any social context, past or present, particularly as rates of youth violence continue to soar.

Such speculation is to distract attention from what a pristine formal achievement “The White Ribbon” is on any terms, its every component – from the sparsely evocative production design to an ensemble cast so adeptly integrated it seems perverse to single anyone out – bearing the mark of a master who has never exerted more control over his craft.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that filmmaking this immaculate still accommodates the viewer’s imagination so generously. After 145 anxious minutes, Haneke doesn’t end on quite the tease that “Caché” did, but still leaves his audience with a mystery solved rather than resolved: we leave the theatre knowing that the worst is yet to come.

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12 responses so far

  • 1 10-22-2009 at 2:16 pm

    Paul M. said...

    As always, great review Guy. Although I’ll admit to being biased (I’m an obsessive Haneke fan), The White Ribbon remains my favorite film of the year. Everyone talks about not being able to get certain shots from Antichrist, Precious, etc. out of their heads, but the shots that have so far left the most powerful mark on me this year are those from The White Ribbon. Haunting and evocative.

  • 2 10-22-2009 at 2:32 pm

    Jim T said...

    Guy, if I remember correctly you were a bit disappointed after the first half of 2009. I think the second half is much more satisfying? Am I right?

    I was only moderately interested in this film but now I really want to see it.

  • 3 10-22-2009 at 2:51 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Absolutely, Jim. Festival season has come through for me in a big way.

    I wouldn’t go as far as Kris in calling this the best movie year of the decade, but I know already that I’m going to have a much harder time compiling a year-end Top 10 than I did last year.

  • 4 10-22-2009 at 3:03 pm

    Chase K. said...

    Great write-up, Guy — easily my most anticipated movie of the year, as Haneke’s “Cache” has given him a lifetime pass from me.

    Although “Funny Games” (2008) was truly terrible…

  • 5 10-22-2009 at 3:08 pm

    red_wine said...

    1 interesting tidbit I have learned is that the movie was actually shot in color(film or digital is still a bit vague bit I will try to find out) and then digitally desaturated to produce the black n white image.

    Having now seen half the Cannes line-up(most of the worthy ones atleast, baring A Prophet which I think you are seeing soon), do you think The White Ribbon is a worthy winner? Last year, while I do think The Class is a worthy winner, I did not love it as much as you did and would have actually given the Palm to Synecdoche or Waltz With Bashir.

  • 6 10-22-2009 at 3:28 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    If you’re asking simply if I think it’s a film worthy of such recognition, then my answer is undoubtedly yes.

    If, however, you’re asking whether I would personally have awarded it the Palme from the contenders I’ve seen so far, then my answer is no.

    Cannes 2009 looks increasingly like a good vintage, though.

  • 7 10-22-2009 at 4:28 pm

    Brent said...

    Been waiting for this review for awhile Guy, and it did not disappoint.

    I was waiting (perhaps naively) to stumble out of The White Ribbon declaring it a masterpiece. But, perhaps because of these expectations, I found this a film I admired more than loved.

    I’m a huge Cache (Hidden) fan, and I felt that despite its technical achievements The White Ribbon simply lacked the intrigue and alarm of the former. I know this could hardly be credited as a fault, but it still rubs me the wrong way.

    After seeing most of Haneke’s work, I also found this one a tad tame and even predictable. I know mystery is hardly the film’s intent by any stretch, but I found myself engaged as one would be by a very elegant mathematical proof to which I know the answer.

    I know where’s Haneke’s going, and I admire the form, but it isn’t bolting me to my seat.

  • 8 10-22-2009 at 4:32 pm

    André said...

    weird thing to say about such a harrowing film, but I can’t wait to see it again!

    certainly one of my favorites this year (it was my #1 but I watched “Up” and “Hurt Locker” again these past few days and now I can’t choose).

  • 9 10-22-2009 at 5:37 pm

    Matthew said...

    My thoughts are largely the same as Brent’s.

  • 10 10-22-2009 at 7:31 pm

    Joel said...

    I can’t wait for this one. I just watched “Cache” for the first time a couple months ago and it pretty much had me riveted. I need to see “The Piano Teacher” and both versions of “Funny Games,” but this one comes first. I assume it’ll be VideoOnDemand, but if it isn’t, I’ll be renting it ASAP.

  • 11 10-23-2009 at 7:19 am

    Michael said...

    wonderful review Guy, as if I needed to read any more glowing endorsements of this movie to have me begging for its release, I am now practically at a frenzy to see this film after your review. I wish foreign films had easier and wider release patterns.

  • 12 10-23-2009 at 10:46 am

    Luke Gorham said...

    While I always like Haneke, I often find it hard to love his works. This film is pretty damn close, though. You absolutely nail the chilling conclusion with your “solved rather than resolved” observation.