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The White Ribbon
2 hours 24 minutes
Director: Michael Haneke
By Joe Ramirez
"I am recalling these events to make sense of what came afterwards," mourns a disembodied narrator as director Michael Haneke unfolds his pulpy epic, "The White Ribbon" ("Die Weisse Band"), a creepy account of a small German town on the eve of the First World War. I say pulpy because Haneke, no stranger to highbrow, gritty exploitation, pummels us with a stately glove of incest, revenge, misogyny and a possible pack of killer kids who act out as part of the town's deeper psyche. It's the stuff Douglas Sirk and David Lynch love to wallow in, but they treat it as melodrama suited aptly for middle class hyperbole. Haneke, on the other hand, bellows in a Teutonic, operatic tone so that his humor, however black, is always kept in check by the somber feeling that the bigger events at stake should constipate our enjoyment, however disturbing.
Michael Haneke won the best director for "The White Ribbon" at Cannes while the movie itself won the Palme D'Or, and it's the type of movie that earns the prize. This is because Haneke is a weird cross between Ingmar Bergman's sobriety and David Lynch's outrageousness, tackling the problems of post Berlin Wall Europe with such ferocity you feel that every one of his movies is like a dissertation on the worst of unification. His best, "Cache," tackled the French ambivalence toward Algeria in such a harsh way I have never seen a movie so critical of a culture, next to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata." All his characters seem to live in a netherworld of denial, with a societal caste so firmly in place that to break it means death, literal and especially spiritual. It's this death of the spirit where Haneke focuses his powers for "The White Ribbon," asking the question, as Thomas Mann did in Doktor Faustus, "What happens when a whole culture sells itself for success?" or, better still, "Why did it sell itself?"
"The White Ribbon" begins before the beginning, as foretold by the narrator who happens to be a 30ish schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in 1914. He intones the story of his rural village, Eichwald, Germany, where a type of feudal system is still in place with all the roles aptly filled out. Scratch the surface, however, and you'll find the doctor is a horrible misogynist, the baron is a self-absorbed hedonist, with all under the roof of the pastor, who is the atypical moralistic bully who makes his children wear white ribbons to remind them of their purity. In this subtle pressure cooker of repression, strange and dangerous events begin to happen, with accidents, abductions and harassments appearing and vanishing like phantoms out of the woods.
What works in the "The White Ribbon" is Haneke's apt feeling of dread, with the German countryside's deep shadows standing in for the inkiness of the village's soul. Production designer Christoph Kanter renders the village in stark, protestant terms, with bareness in the beams of the church to match the rampant starkness of intolerance, and Christian Berger's B&W cinematography to round out the mood. "The White Ribbon's" final effectiveness lies in its thematic ambivalence: We never know "who did it," which feels both apt and like a cop-out as well. We just know that Haneke pins the larger answers right in front of us, with little room to breathe.