Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The latest arthouse saga of abuse, The White Ribbon tops its abusive authorities with the ultimate tormenter, director Michael Haneke who dominates us with all manner of domestic depravity in black-and-white era Germany. Earning the 2009 Palme D’or, The White Ribbon is, as is Haneke’s wont, a riveting arty whodunit adamantly opposed to giving us what we want, playing its cards close to the vest like a distant father's approval. But in a good way.
Set in a small German village, the film opens with a narrator who, after allowing that the story has been pieced together from memory and hearsay, a nod to the subjectivity of truth, explains the film’s intention: to “clarify some things that happened in this country.” Thus we are thrust into the sprawling cast of families that comprise a village surrounding a baron’s estate during a period of strange incidents of violence: the doctor’s horse trips over a deliberately tied line, the farmer’s wife is killed in a machine accident, children are beaten, and more.
Haneke patiently introduces us to the various villagers, withholding significant players until they become relevant to the narrative, floating from house to house as the tension mounts. Only in the final act is the mystery the driving force, but the film is immensely watchable thanks to the breadth of stories weaving through this terrible year. The narrator was a teacher back then, a young man courting the baron’s new nanny Eva. The midwife raises the doctor’s children until he returns from the hospital. The farmer’s family implodes after the accidental death of their matriarch. You get a sense that this village is truly alive: everyone has their own story, they were around before we dropped in, and they’ll continue after we leave. With a rich black and white palette and a wealth of diverse characters, it's like an August Sander volume come to life.
But The White Ribbon is no Steinbeck ballad of community, at least, not directly. It’s a thorough account of how patriarchal abuse cultivated a society where repression and submission allowed the rise of the Nazi party. This thesis is accomplished by the mysterious attacks and the disgusting depiction of the village fathers, across the board a stern, withholding, icy lot with paternal carte blanche. They’re physically abusive, emotionally manipulative, and altogether domineering figures, even in scenes with adult subordinates, as when the teacher calls on Eva’s father to ask her hand in marriage. Tellingly, these abusers have societal roles as authority figures, too—the baron, the doctor, the priest, the steward—although Christian Friedel plays the teacher so goodheartedly that you can’t imagine him behaving like the other fathers by the time he has children.
Spending much of its time with the town's children, Haneke’s argument is a convincingly colored study of learned behavior. At one point the villagers gather in the church to celebrate the arrival of winter, and, mistaking the baron's absence as a sign of his displeasure, the villagers grow uneasy, like children interpreting a parent’s passive aggressions and internalizing the suspicion. But Haneke fails to illustrate how early 20th century German society was uniquely or especially repressed. Is it a cultural characteristic, does it have political roots, was there a specific facet of German life that fomented such begrudging conformity? I suspect there’s an argument about the psychological consequences of imperial government, but Haneke’s mind is elsewhere. Besides, he announces from the start that the truth is unknowable, and The White Ribbon is intended merely to help illuminate the circumstances that would lead to a nation of citizens toeing the line at all costs.
Formally accomplished in every respect—from the layered and believable cast to the sumptuous black-and-white camerawork of Christian Berger to the screenplay by Haneke, which evokes a child’s quaking fear of parental punishment—The White Ribbon is a strong statement from Michael Haneke, who characteristically submits the audience to a number of torments, including the cry of a baby and the wail of a retarded child on top of the numerous instances of abuse as the camera holds back, silently witnessing without poking or exploiting. But the true marvel is that, even apart from its case against the patriarchy, The White Ribbon is so brimming with life and stories yet, like Haneke himself, it still has some cards in its pocket.