Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch
Running time: 144 min.
“Village of the damned”
In the months leading up to World War I, strange incidents seem to be plaguing a small German village. What begins with the peculiar tripping of a doctor on his horse soon escalates to a fire, a maiming, and general antisocial behavior from the town’s children. At the center is the village schoolteacher (who narrates the film from years later) whose sweet relationship with a nanny runs counter to the cruel, repressed underbelly of the society.
Writer/director Michael Haneke explores the tendencies that arise from patriarchal, authoritarian ideologies, strongly hinting at the birth of fascism, Nazism most specifically. But the Austrian auteur is not concerned with the prototypical nature versus nurture argument regarding evil. His film is a tale of burgeoning malice within generations. The Baron who owns the village property has a tight hold over his long suffering wife. The Doctor’s bitterness and barely suppressed advances toward his daughter causes him to verbally abuse his housekeeper and mistress. And the Pastor stresses discipline to the town’s schoolchildren at a humiliating price, to the detriment of his own family.
Like a great literary parable ala Nathaniel Hawthorne, The White Ribbon probes into human fallibility with Haneke’s usual elegant yet duplicitous composition. Quiet talks between characters nary involve seething subtext. Even basic fishing trips carry blistering tension. The serene beauty of the German countryside in spring and winter sets the stage for the mounting atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and disdain. Shot in crisp 35mm and then digitally altered to black and white by Christian Berger, this is Haneke’s most cinematic achievement, a delicate yet damning investigation into a random place in history that accrues weight through sheer historical context.
Michael Haneke is not a preening cynic like Lars Von Trier nor is he a sadist looking to set fire to characters like paper dolls. He is a scholar telling what is and asking why with the clear knowledge that such an answer is a futile endeavor. His provocative film, however opaque and distant at times, looks at evil as the disease of the dominant, the subjugated, and the plain curious. All the while the village church, barns, fields, and domiciles stand peacefully, the humans toil, quarrel and tear asunder; the great microcosm for what is to come in history—what has always been and what will always be.
Star Rating: ****1/2/*****
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2009.