The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 01/26/10 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes last year, Michael Haneke’s film, The White Ribbon, filmed in black-and-white, is a parable-like tale of some of the dark sides of human nature.  Namely, Haneke considers it a story about Fascism, or the elements therein, which gave rise to opportunity for Fascism to come to the fore in early 20th century Europe, poised as the story is on the brink of WWI.

But it’s not a story of the big events, but the smaller, human events in a northern German farming village and situated around a series of bizarre crimes which trouble the community, yet never really find true resolution.  And the powers that be, the baron and his supervisor, the archly Puritanical local reverand, and the powers that are wielded by the strong (or empowered) over the weak (or dis-empowered).  Sounds like a fun time for all, huh?

Haneke isn’t known for making “fun” films.  He’s known for making challenging, critical, thought-provoking films, quite political in their ways, but clearly intellectual.  I was struck, for instance, when watching his 1997 film Funny Games (which he re-made a couple of years ago, shot-for-shot, for US audiences), at how masterful he is at audience manipulation, controlling the tools of narrative cinema, evoking the most striking elements.  A master.  But because he’s also so politicized, he’s not bent entirely on leading the filmgoer by the nose, other than to force one into situations of challenge and thought.

Ultimately, The White Ribbon is quite open-ended.  Nothing is truly resolved, huge questions are thrown open as the film ends, and the troubling situation of not having the mystery solved (though perhaps partially speculated upon), there is no closure for the audience.  It’s sort of a parable where you have to draw your own conclusions, write your own moral for the story.

Though Haneke has apparently made period films before for German television, this is the first of his films that I have seen that were not primarily set in contemporary times (however, The Time of the Wolf (2003) is set in the future).  He chose to film in black-and-white (or rather shoot color film and print in black-and-white) and spent a good deal of focus on period detail.  It’s interesting because his films and mentality are very modern or semi-post-modern perhaps.  And this film, which has a rich visual style and some poignant cinematography, “looks” more like a “classic” film.

Personally, I think Haneke is one of the most-interesting filmmakers in the world today.  My favorites of his films are Caché (2005) and The Piano Teacher (2001), though arguably those are his most mainstream or commercial films.  Maybe they are also his best films.  The White Ribbon, though I’ve given myself a few days to consider it, hasn’t fully sunken in.  Like many of the films that wind up really “sitting with you”, it takes them a while to settle into your system, to contemplate, to consider.  And since Haneke’s films are not wrapped in pure narrative or visual pleasure, one never so much “loves” them rather than is just impacted by them, affected by them, so much like its open-ended lack of solution to the mysteries, one rarely feels as if one has a full and complete sense oneself of his films.

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