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Fans of Michael Haneke's more morally shocking films such as 'Funny
Games', 'Benny's Video' or the draining 'Time of the Wolf' might find
themselves surprised by the quieter and slower analysis of evil in his
latest work 'Das Weisse Band'.
The action takes place in a North German village shortly before the outbreak of the First World War and in structure presents a number of subtly drawn individual characters as they are caught up in a mysterious series of violent events.
In the hands of a mere moralist this could be an unbearable few hours. But it's credit to Haneke's skill as a film-maker that we are utterly caught up and absorbed by a large cast of children and adults.
One of the on-going arguments in Haneke's films appears to be the origins of human evil, or perhaps more precisely put, individual acts of evil behaviour. Are such acts an individual's responsibility or do they spring from a climate in which particular energies are at work? This is the question Haneke appears to be exploring here (just as was a central question relating to French society in 'Cache').
One of the most disturbing things at the heart of the film is the fact that we do not know why particular acts of evil take place (including the maiming of a disabled child and the beating of a nobleman's son), or even who commits them. However, this is no 'whodunnit', although with its retrospective voice-over from the School Teacher's p.o.v. we are let to believe for a long time that were in a crime/thriller genre.
Throughout his body of work so far, Haneke has suggested that looking for the sort of easy answers films and TV all too readily supply is partly responsible for our misunderstanding how violence in society occurs. (Funny Games).
'The White Ribbon' bypasses the usual dramatical devices of motivation and blame and instead softly focuses on an environment (in this case Germany in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century) in which certain unhealthy energies are at work.
These energies include an emotionally repressed and joyless Protestantism, the mistreatment and oppression of women, the familial abuse of children, the fetishism of strong masculine and patriarchal values, and the un-breachable divide between the rich and the poor. Set over all this, like an umbrella, is the fact that the small provincial society depicted in the film is all but completely isolated from wider society.
Another poster here has pointed out that Haneke is using his village as a microcosm to reflect Germany as a whole, and I would agree with that. Haneke's Dorf, whilst having an individual character, is a relative of Von Trier's Dogville in the sense that it stands for a larger set of national values. In this respect Haneke seems to be diagnosing German society in the run up to the 'Great' War as one of authoritarianism, religious doubt, intolerance, and fear.
What is remarkable in such a film is how little human joy or love is to be found in such a seemingly idyllic rural landscape. The love strand (between the narrator Teacher and the dismissed 17 yr old children's nurse) has a rather strained aspect. It is as though the film maker is suggesting that affection might also be down to available opportunity.
One of the most moving scenes in The White Ribbon is when a young child brings his father, a Priest, a caged bird he has nursed back to health. The father's beloved pet canary was killed (by his daughter as a protest against the bleak, loveless household she's been reared in - a home in which a father shows more affection to a small bird than his own children.
Thus the scene symbolically depicts a child demonstrating the love that the parent himself is unable of showing. Tears fill the priest's eyes. It is a tiny moment of love and hope in an otherwise emotionally barren wasteland. It is also a symbol of how a new generations of Germans have dealt with, and healed, previous decades of pain.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Strange things happen in a small rural village in pre-World War I
Germany. The local doctor is thrown from his horse and seriously
injured because of a trip wire stretched between two trees; the wife of
a farm worker is killed when she falls through a rotted barn door; a
young boy is beaten and tied upside down; the son of the Doctor's
mistress, a boy with Down syndrome, is blinded in a fierce assault; and
the Baron's barn is set on fire. These incidents and others create a
climate of fear and suspicion in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon,
winner of the coveted Palme D'Or Award at the 2009 Cannes Film
Festival. It is the kind of climate in which a hornet's nest of guilt,
repression, and abusive behavior that have been festering in the
community for years begins to surface.
Created and written by the director with an assist from award-winning screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, the film is shot in high contrast black and white and narrated by the village schoolteacher (Christian Freidel), the film's most sympathetic character, many years after the events have taken place. Though the film is dark, the courtship between the young teacher and the Baron's nanny, a shy 17-year-old Eva (Leonie Benesch) lightens the mood considerably, almost a necessity in a film that stretches to almost two and a half hours and can be a grim experience.
Although the children are named, the adults are referred to only in terms of the role they play in the village: the Baron, the Pastor, the Farmer, and the Doctor. The most powerful person in the village is the wealthy Baron (Ulrich Tukur) who employs most of the farmers and laborers. His wife (Ursina Lardi) is a woman of culture who looks upon the uneducated people in the village with disdain. It is a patriarchal society in which repressive and puritanical rules are rigidly enforced, everyone knows their place and, if they forget, the club of religion is used to make sure that they remember. In the meantime, acts of cruelty toward women and children are kept secret.
The worst hypocrite is the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who preaches about God's love but physically punishes his two oldest children Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf) and humiliates them by tying a white ribbon on them as a symbol of the purity and innocence they should strive for. He even has the boy's hands tied to the side of his bed at night so he won't masturbate. The doctor (Rainer Block) who cares for the villagers by day shames his mistress (Susanne Lothar) at night by means of cruel verbal assaults. As the bizarre incidents pile up, the mystery deepens as to the identity of the perpetrator(s) and even the police are called in but all they can do is to browbeat a young girl who claims to have predicted one of the beatings in a dream.
The White Ribbon stirs up images of the Germany that would emerge years later under Hitler and there is a strong suggestion that the way the children are constantly punished for minor infractions played a role in that development, creating a vicious circle in which the distorted values of the parents are internalized by the children. Reminiscent of the austerity of Carl Dreyer's Ordet, The White Ribbon creates an impeccable sense of time and place, succeeding as an engrossing mystery, an insightful character study, and a cautionary tale that suggests that the roots of war and hatred lie not in ideology but in the corruption of our values and the emptiness in our souls. It is not difficult to see how the Jews in that setting could become scapegoats for that emptiness.
Few film auteurs can match the consistency of Michael Haneke, and once
again the Austrian filmmaker has come up trumps with an exquisite and
brooding mediation on repression, tradition and the sins of the father.
Shot in stunning black and white, the film chronicles a series of mysterious events in a town leading up to the outbreak of WWI. The pace is slow and thoughtful, and the film is reference to August Sander while being a respectful throwback to the German expressionists whose work would come out of the horrors the film's narrative seems to foreshadow.
The hallmarks of Haneke's body of work are all there elegiac tone, clinical editing, wincingly frank dialogue but in many ways The White Ribbon stands alone in the canon. It is a challenging work that will polarise audiences but represents a breathtaking new wave not just in the director's career but in European cinema.
Some might say the film's inherent flaw is that there is no-one to root for, but this is perhaps its key strength. It's certainly plausible that this is Haneke's intention: he wants to position us as mute outsiders to a slowly creeping menace, unable to have a say in the invisible horrors that await us. The result is a deadening and thoroughly rewarding experience - a combination few filmmakers could hope to achieve.
Filmed beautifully in black and white with subtitles, The White Ribbon
is a movie that will leave viewers with a lasting residue long after it
ends. The film portrays the residents of a northern German village,
dominated by a baron, sometime before World War I.
Inhabitants of this village, young and old, are sliding down the slippery slope of moral decline. The men in leadership positions - a doctor and clergyman, for example - are detestable, especially in their treatment of women and children. The most brutal scene in the movie, perhaps, was not one that portrayed physical violence, but verbal abuse towards a woman that served faithfully as caretaker, and more, for the town's widowed physician. As for the some of the children, although it is only suggested, it appears that they are budding sociopaths that perpetrate despicable acts against others.
Weeks after seeing this film, I started thinking more deeply about the children in this town. I realized that they would become young adults during the time Hitler would rise in power. They live an incubator in which the cruelty that they experience they, in turn, perpetrate against unsuspecting victims. Their circumstances are such that they are being unwittingly primed for carrying out the atrocities that will come to characterize their future in Nazi Germany. The White Ribbon is a prequel for the rise of the Third Reich.
Seeing this film led me to wonder about what present times are a prequel for.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed at its conclusion. I knew it was
something great, especially in construction and visual prowess, yet I
couldn't shake that feeling of clouded mediocrity. And then, after
talking about it with my friend for an hour or two afterwards, it hit
me. Haneke has intentionally filled our minds with detail upon detail,
setting up conspiracies and unsolved mysterious, leading us to believe
things only to plant clues that refute them. Looking back, I found that
each second stuck in my head; I couldn't shake even the minutest detail
because it might hold the key to solving this puzzle. Deaths,
tragedies, and accidents are happening every day, possibly connected,
but how? Our narrator, the town's schoolteacher played by Christian
Friedel, is relaying the events that occurred before being sent off to
fight once the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. He believes the
strange attitude and mysterious activities all began with a freak
accident of the doctor. Riding his horse back home, he is thrown off
when its legs trip on a wire spanning two trees, causing a lengthy
hospital stay to recover. Next come a death, a kidnapping, and a
beating, all unsolved despite hunches and hypotheses going through the
town. Something is in the air, but what it is and what will come of it
The children are the key to everything. They are the easiest to blame, as it seems they are always there by the tragedies. Definitely hiding something, the kids begin to stare authority in the eye and practice what has been preached. Haneke mentions in an interview attached to the press notes that he wanted to show the sort of "black" education going on at the time, breeding Fascism and terror. Good and evil fall to strict black and white, every action has a reaction, a punishment to set things right. The children are of an age that they are beginning to understand that life is not eternal, there are consequences in their actions and the adults are not afraid to tell them so. When you don't follow the rules, you will be caned, (a brilliant scene showing the young siblings enter the room, but allowing the audience to only see the closed door during the abuse), and you will have to wear the white ribbon in order to show the world your transgressions and need to earn back the right to be free, (the precursor to the Jewish stars perhaps?).
What about the adults? What about those practicing adultery, or abuse of power, or destruction of property, or sexual abuse with a child? Who has the right to punish them? When, after the second kidnapping and beating of a young boy, a note is found stating intentions, that the children of transgressors will be discipline for four to five generations, you start to see the severity of the actionsas well as allusions to the Holocaust and the mass genocide of an entire people, rooting out the "evils" of the world by excising the entire population, killing the bloodline at the source. But it can't be the children, right? They are too young and innocent, unknowing of the world set before them. Yet with the upbringing in this town, treated as adults with responsibilities and accountability, anyone would grow up fast. Cause a raucous in class and be chastised; be the leader and stand in the corner. Forgiveness is a liability. When the oldest girl, and leader of the wolves if you believe the children are the monsters, Klara, (wonderfully portrayed by Maria-Victoria Dargus), is ready to accept Communion, her own father, the pastor, (a menacing man of authority realized by Burghart Klaussner), pauses, contemplating whether she deserves it. You know he doesn't want to give in, family bond means nothing.
Haneke has woven a tapestry of intrigue that will keep you on edge throughout. The anticipation of a solution is palpable, and the fact it is never released makes this film so riveting and unforgettable. The payoff is that these children will grow up into the generation that becomes the Nazi party, making this sleepy rural town a breeding ground for young Fascists that will change the world. Retribution is being taught, atoning for ones sins practiced. World War II is after all an answer to the punishment inflicted on Germany after the first, isn't it? It's a cycle of getting back, proving one's pride, and seeking revenge upon the children of the enemy if the enemy itself is unavailable. God's will has to be upheld and that intrinsic fact is ingrained in the minds of the youth. When Martin, an effective Leonard Proxauf, is discovered walking along the railing of a high bridge, he responds to the yelling of the man that finds him with the line used to title this review. If what he was doing was wrongwe can only infer on his role in the incidents occurring around himthen God would have let him fall, paying for his sins. But the fact that he gets to the other side unscathed only proves his work is that of the creator of man. Haneke says he had another name for the film, God's Right Hand, and I think it would have been just as appropriate a title. A powerful film, sharing so much information without any answers; it takes our mind into overdrive, trying so hard to find a reason for it all. But sometimes there are none; sometimes bad things just happen. You can only speculate and hope to prevent them from ever happening again.
During the course of the year before WWI, a series of tragic and
suspicious looking incidents take place in a small farming village
somewhere in black and white Germany. The culprit or the culprits
behind the crime wave will not be too easy to find.
The doctor, the priest, the baron and the teacher who also narrates the film form the elite of the village. We get to know each one of them and a few other villagers along with children of this village, calm on the surface but deeply tormented by an undercurrent of brutality, envy, malice and apathy.
The children's natural path to maturity is blocked by strict religious morality, cruelly enforced by the priest, thereby inhibiting their personal observation of the world around them. The priest feeds children with guilt and sexual repression instead of love and punishes even their most innocent mistakes. Certainly this environment will make it easy for them to not only accept but seek ruthless authority later in life.
As might be expected, love in this town is restrained and uneasy, while incest and affairs are overlooked by villagers. The Baron employs half of the village in his farm, yet almost no one seems to be against feudalism, nor rise up against the accidents that happen in the workplace. Social justice is a stranger to town, yet villagers are entrenched in apathy.
If adults do not face up the truth, however this truth might be against their convictions, rise up and take charge, then who will? And according to whose morality? Isn't fascism with racism, in short Nazism, misdirected popular anger and an easy response to deep injustices within a society ? Haneke observes mostly psychological, educational and religious roots of Nazism while leaving economic aspects mostly in the background.
Visuals of the film are very solid. The symmetry in the shots and the tidiness of the houses, even of those belonging to the poor farmers hint at the discipline and rigor Germans are well known for. Acting is top notch by the whole cast, especially children's faces beam just like in Bergman films. Directing was superb.
Haneke uses a village and a narrator similar in essence to Lars Von Trier's Dogville, still these two movies are clearly different.
Das Weisse Band has also some similarities to Cache, but just one notch less satisfying than his masterpiece which had a slightly more intriguing and fulfilling story. This movie is made more accessible by Haneke with his choice of more obvious tips, where sometimes characters talk directly about the situation. But in a time and age when people are battling too many problems and drug themselves with TV and easy payoffs who could blame Haneke?
Given the current global economic conditions and the fanaticism running high across all three major religions, this is a must-see movie for anyone caring about the future of our global village to avoid a Le Temps du Loup type of ending!
In an interview with the French newspaper "Le Monde" on 10/20/09,
published on 10/21/09, Michael Haneke has explicitly and unequivocally
declared his intentions in making the movie "The White Ribbon":
He intended to make a movie about the roots of evil. He said that he believed that the environment of extreme, punitive and sexually repressive protestantism in Germany, has laid the groundwork for Fascism and Nazism. He also said that he saw the same patterns developing in fundamentalist Muslim societies today, and that it is those societies that today were spawning terrorists and suicide bombers. Finally, he expressed the sentiment that "The White Ribbon" is a movie against ALL extremisms.
Michael Haneke has directed his vision in a very masterful and artful way: the cinematography, the acting, and the script are all superb.
The only problem I have is with the vision itself: The environment certainly plays a role, but to explain evil exclusively as the product of one's environment is simplistic and goes against common sense observation: The majority of people on this earth have grown up under repressive regimes and yet have NOT turned out to become murderers, mass murderers, terrorists or suicide bombers. Something is missing in the equation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Michael Haneke; infant terrible of the art cinema world is not to
everyone's taste. He doesn't exactly make action movies.
But the movie did win the Palme d'or at Cannes this year so certainly the critics liked it.
It's long and it moves at a slow but steady pace. It's black and white (often dimly lit) but beautifully realised. In fact at times the cinematography is so beautiful that it's like a moving Ansell Adams. It is variously graded throughout with the merest hint of a cream or a brown creeping in from time to time that creates some variety. It's mesmerising.
And it's weird. Really weird.
Apparently, and this is not blindingly obvious, it is an allegorical take on the birth of fascism.
It's yet another movie where the heavy hand of religion gets the blame for most evil. The pastor of the remote German village that it is set in, in the lead up to the First World War, is a central character and is the sort we've seen many times before (The Magdalene Sisters being a good example). Outwardly pious; inwardly, and to his family, a callous and vicious bastard. Quick to blame, shame and moralise. His presence throughout is powerful and visceral.
The dawning of fascism is subtly portrayed because no politics enter the film overtly at any point. Class wars and sexual politics do though in what is clearly a male dominated culture and one where sexual transgression is rife (child abuse, domestic abuse, illicit masturbation and secret affairs are all featured).
But it's the children (spookily played by one and all in a sort of village of the damned way) that steal the film. They appear to be forces of evil and if not (the plot is never explained and the strange occurrences left to hang - it is Haneke after all) they are certainly victims of it.
Haneke seems to be saying that the rise of fascism came out of this age of suppression and a sense of revenge - after all the destruction of the Jews is often taken as a form of revenge for their post WWI success.
Haneke makes films like only Haneke makes films. Some people find them slow and boring. I think he follows in the style of that French New Wave of the 60's but with a better grip on audience manipulation. He makes thought provoking masterpieces and this is another one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Another excellent film by Haneke. Some points...
1. Haneke's "Cache" used a mystery plot as a scaffold to examine the 1961 police massacre of Algerian protesters, an event which he then used as a symbol for the growing unease between France and Arabic minorities, and by extension, the West's mounting paranoia towards Arabs and Islam.
2. Haneke claims that "The White Ribbon" is about "the origins of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature." This is an important statement, as it provides a guide as to how Haneke intends this film to be viewed.
3. The film takes place in an agricultural village in pre-World War 1 Germany, in which most of the locals work for an aristocratic land baron. Other characters include the local doctor, pastor, teacher, farmers and their respective women/wives/lovers/children.
4. The film is structured around a string of horrific crimes that befall the citizens of the village. But this is not a "whodunit mystery film". Instead, like Antonioni's "Blow Up" and "The Adventure", Haneke's mystery is never resolved, the crimes being used to make a series of far larger statements.
5. This film will appeal to a very limited audience. Like Tarr, Kubrick, Antonioni, Jancso, Wajda and Egoyan, Haneke is a cold, sometimes intellectual, director, who voids his films of narrative crutches and forces his audience to study every minute detail on screen. Like these directors, he uses a variety of distancing techniques, designed to instill an air of quiet contemplation.
6. In true Haneke fashion, the film begins with a confession of artifice, the narrator plainly stating that he is not quite sure whether his story is true or false. Of course the film is far less self-reflexive than "Cache", "Funny Games" and "Benny's Video", mostly because of its period setting.
7. With its stark black and white cinematography, the film works as a counterpoint to Dreyer's "Ordet" and Spielberg's "Schindler's List", a film which Haneke regards as "exploitative".
8. Haneke's Brechtian distancing effects at times feel gimmicky. Consider two scenes, one in which a boy is whipped by his father and another in which a man sits over a bed, his face obscured by a wall. These feel less like genuine attempts at alienation than impotent "copies of distancing effects".
9. All the crimes which take place in this film form an intricate web of "causes" and "effects". The village is a very morbid place, every relationship and interaction poisoned and perverse. Haneke takes aim at the way religion represses people sexually and emotionally, the way it bolsters a social hierarchy in which women are oppressed and mistreated and in which children lay prostrate to an abusive patriarchy which fetishizes masculinity and patriarchal values. He portrays an authoritarian world in which the divide between the rich and the poor is impenetrable, everyone subservient to someone else. This is a dark world in which values become evil the moment there are applied as a social rule, in which jealousies lead to violence and injustices and inequalities lead to various terrorist actions.
10. Haneke has made German, French and English language films. Has any other director so effortlessly hopped from one language to the next?
11. Haneke says his film is not about fascism, but we see clues in "The White Ribbon" as to how these German children of 1911 will later become either Nazis, Nazi supporters or men and women violently opposed to fascism. The seeds of a macabre future are being sown here.
12. The last scene of the film is a simple shot in which all the villagers gather and sit down within a church. The image then very slowly fades to black. This shot is intended to mirror a cinema audience, the seated villagers being a carefully composed reflection of the film's audience members. Haneke's point: recognise yourself.
13. Note that the 2 child victims in the film (the Baron's boy and the handicapped child) are not subjected to the harsh social structures which affect everyone else in the village. In some ways, they are jealously punished for the very freedoms they possess. Note too that whilst all the adult women are subservient and dutiful, trapped in an abusive system, the female children possess an outsiders view which allows them to question and rebel against the very system that entraps their mothers.
14. Many have complained that none of the crimes are resolved, but with a little detective work the diligent viewer can make educated guesses as to who performed each of the crimes and needle out their various motivations.
15. Late in the film a caged bird is killed, symbolising the refusal of the "terrorists" to become "domesticated" or "subservient". The owner of the bird then replaces it with another bird which he initially promised to set free. The point: man has abandoned his true parental responsibilities (to nurture and guide that which was born wild) in favour for possession and control. The captive will not be set free, lest he violently breaks away or the captor willingly lets him go.
16. Note the characters whispering in the final shot. Dark futures are being planned here. Note too the final conversation between the pastor and the teacher. This is a battle between "truth" and "curiosity" vs "willful delusion" and "false beliefs". The pastor lies to himself in the service up upholding the status quo.
17. Will time be kind to Haneke? He's a great director, but he needs to marry his intellect to stronger visuals.
8.9/10 A bit too joyless, misanthropic and heavy-handed, but what else should we expect from a director nicknamed "The Ice King"? Nevertheless, the film has a powerful message, and the relationship between its narrator (a teacher) and a young girl is beautiful, respectful and optimistic. Of course, their age difference and her vulnerability suggests that even their romance is borne of dark opportunity.
Stunningly beautiful, shot in the exquisite black and white, with the
faces of the characters looking like the old pictures from the
beginning of the 20th century, The White Ribbon has the longer title in
German, Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte -The White
Ribbon - A German Children's Tale. The longer title gives quite a good
idea behind the mystery of the troubling, disturbing, and shocking
events in the film that did not have an explanation by the end of the
film and left some viewers confused and unsatisfied. I think that the
film is very clear and if approached with the open mind and readiness
to accept the subtle details in the storytelling and implication, the
open end will not disappoint. Anybody who is familiar with the work of
Michael Haneke knows very well that he does not make pure
mystery/thrillers even though his movies have a lot of mysteries and
often very dark secrets By his own admissions, he uses the mystery in
the White Ribbon to show the origins of the extremism of all epochs,
and what could have been the beginning of the darkest times in the
history of the country. Looking at the life of one small picturesque
village in the northern Germany just on the brink of the World War 1,
Haneke explores the malice, envy, apathy, hatred, and brutality that
envelop the village like a web, and lead to the outbursts of evil that
goes unpunished and will bring the larger evil in the future. While
watching the film, I kept thinking how much it brings to mind the films
of another master of grim and sad yet compelling and thought provoking
pictures, Ingmar Bergman. Two of his films remind The White Ribbon
especially. One, The Winter Light, a tragic and thought-provoking film
about a village priest (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who can't give much comfort
and hope to those who need them as he feels none for himself. Another -
Fanny and Alexander, the story told from the point of view of two
children, a brother and a sister whose lives changed tragically after
their widowed mother married a local bishop, seemingly a charming and
caring man. What would have happened to Fanny and Alexander, what kind
of persons would they have become or would they have survived had they
not had a big dysfunctional but loving family who saved them from the
abusive, cruel hypocritical stepfather, Bishop Edvard Vergerus?
Like Bergman, Michael Haneke does not make the horror films but the computer generated monsters are simply a joke comparing to the real monsters of hatred and evil that found a place to hide and grow in the souls and minds of the characters in his latest film. It is a serious, disturbing, and thought-provoking film. With all its darkness and pessimism, the film has sweet, touching and even humorous moments. They have to do with the only love story in the film and come to think of it, the only love story in all Haneke's films I've seen, between the film's narrator, the local school teacher and the 17 years old Eva, the nanny for the children of the baron, the most powerful man in village.
One of the critics said that The White Ribbon is the film that will haunt the viewers for days and will be seen, discussed and thought of for the decades to come. I completely agree with that, and I feel I can watch it again and again. Yes, it is that good.
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