Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Movie Review: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon ****
Directed By:
Michael Haneke.
Written By: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel (Lehrer), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Bernard Klausner (Pastor), Maria Victorira Dargis (Klara)Rrsina Lardi (Baronin Marie-Luise), Mercedes Jadea Diaz (Evas Schwester), Michael Kranz (Hauslehrer), Sebastian Hülk (Max), Marisa Growaldt (Magd), Janina Fautz (Erna), Leonard Proxauf (Martin), Thibault Sérié (Gustav), Theo Trebs (Ferdinand), Anne-Kathrin Gummich), Kai-Peter Malina (Karl), Marvin Ray Spey (Hans), Enno Trebs (Georg), Levin Henning (Pfarrerssohn Adolf).

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon explores life in a small, insular town in Germany right before the start of the First World War. The film centers on five families, who patriarchs are all identified solely, based on their job descriptions that deconstruct the class system- Baron, Pastor, Doctor, Steward, and Farmer. The entire town is so perverse, that the kids in the movie do not realize just how screwed up everything they are being taught really is. The Pastor in particular, systematically tears down his kids, humiliating them by making them feel ashamed of masturbation, or even rowdy behavior. He makes his children wear a white ribbon to remind them of how they are supposed to be - pure and innocent. He rules with an iron fist - in one chilling sequence, he whips two of his children simply for showing up late for dinner one day. Instead of focusing on the violence of this scene itself, Haneke’s camera stays outside the room where the abuse is happening, instead tracking outside as the son has to go get the whip that will be used on him, and then lingering outside in the hall, where we hear the results. The Pastor gets his children to buy into his rigid belief system by completely breaking them down, and then providing just a single crumb of respect - whether its by removing the white ribbon and hand restraints of his son (the restraints he is forced to wear at night so as to stop him from masturbating), or by allowing his daughter’s confirmation to go through, even after her shocking act of violence on his pet bird.

The key performances in the movie are by Burghart Klausner as the Pastor, and Maria Victoria Dargis as his daughter Klara. Klausner is scarily good as the Pastor, who completely dominates his children. His children are scared to death of him, and because of the way Klausner looks at them - and delivers his lines - it is no wonder why. Klara is the one child in the village who seems to rebel actively against her parents. She is one of the kids who gets beaten for being late, and later in the film, the Pastor will be some unduly cruel to her in front of her classmates, that she is pass out. The shockingly, violent act that Klara does to bird is the one moment in the film where one of the kids seems to truly be angry about their treatment, and is also the one moment in the film where something seems to break through the Pastor’s tough as nails façade. These two performances are brilliant, and although the rest of the cast is also great, these two stand out above the others.

In Haneke’s view, the treatment of the children in the town by the adults is how not just National Socialism took hold in Germany a few decades later, but really all terrorism. Because the kids only see one view of reality - the one provided by their parents - it becomes easier to make them true believers. When differing viewpoints are eliminated, and everyone acts the same way, it because easier to believe a fanatical viewpoint.

The children are gradually reduced to something out of a movie like Village of the Damned - an emotionless army of fanatics. The shocking acts of violence (which, in typical Haneke style, happens almost entirely off-screen), functions much the same way the videotapes did in Haneke’s Cache, in that they are meant to break the town out of their complacency. From the attack on the doctor that opens the film, to the abuse visited on the son of the Baron, and the “retarded” son of the midwife, the sins of the parents are being visited upon their children. Haneke also continues his view of sex as a tool of humiliation. In one shocking, cruel scene, the doctor dismisses the midwife, who has been his lover for years, by listing all of her flaws in painstaking mean detail. When he moves onto abusing his daughter, who has just turned 14, it functions the same way as the Pastor’s abuse. She knows no better, so to her it is normal. Her poor younger brother seems to have no idea what is going on. The film is novelistic in its approach, as the film is full of characters. It is narrated by a teacher, who as an outsider to the town is able to see the perversity of the town, but remains too timid to actually do anything about it. His relationship with another outsider - the nanny who works for the baron - is almost sweet in comparison to everything else that happens in the movie.

Shot in stark black and white, the film is meticulously composed and framed, and contains some amazing imagery. The film is a masterpiece about how emotional repression and class conflict that gave rise to the Nazis, and how, the same thing plays out around the war, where ever a set of absolutist values is taught to children, who do not know any better. The White Ribbon is certainly not for everyone. My three companions were all thoroughly unimpressed with the film. For many it will be too slow, and the fact that Haneke does not feel the need to spell everything out will certainly frustrate viewers more used to Hollywood storytelling. But for fans of Haneke’s work it is a must see.

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