Thursday, November 11, 2010

The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke, 2009)

I recently watched The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) a film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. See previous posts on Haneke here and here. This most recent effort is a black and white German-language film about the mysterious and sadistic goings-on in a rural German village on the eve of the First World War. The first thing to be said about The White Ribbon is that it's beautifully shot and executed. It has the sleek elegance of a classic luxury car -- German, of course! Shooting in black and white is more than a stylistic choice for a filmmaker of Haneke's skill. He uses it as a tool to evoke all kinds of associations from European history and cinema. As I've said before black and white is a genre in and of itself. Not only that Haneke coaxes astonishingly subtle acting from his large cast, especially from the various and sundry children around whom the story revolves. For an example of this see the video below.

Going back to the luxury car analogy, though, I found this movie to be like a sports car in which you raise the hood and nothing is there. I have a high tolerance for films that traffic in ambiguity and unresolved plotlines, but watching this German kinder tale left me more than a little exasperated. I suspect the filmmaker meant it to be so, and the fact that I'm thinking and writing about it a week later is evidence of its effectiveness. Even the flawed film of a first-rate artist is a far worthier investment of time than ninety-nine percent of the dreck that sells popcorn at Muvico.

Herr Haneke keeps his cards close to the vest, but he seems to be trying here to draw a straight line from strict religious observance and authoritarian childrearing practices to the national sins of the Third Reich. To put it mildly this is a bit of a cliche. Even if the severe faith epitomized by the Lutheran pastor of the film was somehow to blame for the German people's complicity in Nazism's crimes, I'd remind Haneke that the same religiocultural stew that produced a populace willing to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust; also produced Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl. I'm reminded of the point I've heard made by my friend Paul Copan: the biggest problem for the materialist is not the problem of evil, it's the problem of virtue. Where does that come from in a cruel impersonal universe?

I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that Haneke has an essentially materialistic worldview in which notions like the Fall and original sin are dismissed as relics of the Dark Ages. He probably holds to a romantic notion of the "noble savage." Children are fundamentally good until they're corrupted by education, religion, patriarchy, you name it. Nevertheless he has an acute sense that something is deeply wrong with the world as it is. Whether one attributes it to sin, genetics, or psychological disorder, it's clear that beneath the serene veneer of bourgeois life is a shocking capacity for cruelty. In Haneke's fictional village the sins of the fathers are graphically visited on the children. The director means for his audience to be shocked by all of this, and we are, in an unsettling sort of a way. In fact "unsettling" is the dominant Haneke mood. He only gives us glimpses of what's beneath the surface, what's behind the closed door, but that's enough.

The white ribbon, we're told, is a symbol of innocence and purity. Though in the movie it's wielded more like a scarlet letter. Perhaps that's as it should be. The ancient narrative of a man, a woman, and a serpent tells us that, strictly speaking, there are no innocents. No child of our first parents, save one, has ever been fit to wear the white ribbon.

Here's a scene from the film. Watch the reaction of the child when he realizes he's been lied to.

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