Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte
***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi
written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Bryant Frazer The origins of evil--an alluring subject for writers and filmmakers, perhaps even more so than for psychologists and historians, who are limited by the facts of any given case. They become psychological archeologists, looking for the broken artifacts of a damaged mind that indicate why this person or that chose to inflict great pain and suffering by picking up a knife, a gun, or the blunt force of an entire nation's army. Artists who imagine or investigate evil deeds, on the other hand, have the refuge of the poet. They may root in the filth of amorality and sociopathy, seeking dark messages there, but what they eventually create is the product of humanism--an effort to understand and shed light on tragedies in motion, on the present-day injustices that can lead to future wickedness and despair.
And of all the tragedies that an artist could choose to investigate, few have the sheer epochal heft of those that took place in Nazi Germany. A genius filmmaker like Michael Haneke is not going to tackle Hitler's Germany head on, but he makes a close approach. His film The White Ribbon, set amongst adults and children in a Protestant farming village in northern Germany, ends just as war breaks out in Europe in 1914. That means the people we see in the film will eventually be part of Nazi Germany. Some of them, especially the children, will doubtless be Nazis. So the chief meaning is extra-textual. Taken purely on its own terms, the film is a chilly, weirdly reticent story of a small group of villagers whose lives are interdependent in ways they don't begin to understand. Understood as a precursor to European fascism, it coalesces into a provocative but unconventional tale of crime and punishment--and a microcosm of German life in the years before World War I.
Haneke's dissections of human behaviour yield mixed rewards, although I believe he is one of the greatest filmmakers currently working, and it's hard to imagine contemporary world cinema without him. His best films (Code Unknown and Caché) are finely detailed examinations of the ways that people can be terrible to one another, and they're as illuminating as they are emotionally punishing. When his work falls on the other side of that fine line, however, it comes across as presumptuous and snooty. Just a few minutes ago, walking through Times Square, I was trying to think of a way to summarize my distaste for Haneke's hectoring serial-killer movie Funny Games (both versions). I happened to see a young woman, maybe 16 or 17 years old, who was wearing an exceptionally tight blue T-shirt with the words "LOOK CLOSER" written across the chest. It struck me immediately that Funny Games is like that T-shirt: it admonishes you for merely noticing it exists. Nothing in The White Ribbon is so directly disdainful of its audience, but there's still a lot of finger-wagging going on.
As you might expect, Haneke's approach to his characters--a priest, a land-owning baron, a doctor, and a schoolteacher, in addition to the various women and children who must live with and around them as family, lovers, and hired help--is uncompromising. Specific questions of culpability remain defiantly unanswered, but there's plenty of guilt to go around. The village doctor (Rainer Bock) is felled on his return home one day by a wire strung between two trees to catch the legs of his horse. Before much longer, one of the baron's children is kidnapped and beaten. Crops are destroyed and there is an arson. Such adult misdeeds are contrasted with more apparently minor transgressions. The sanctimonious priest ties one of his children to the bed at night in order to combat the urge to masturbate. After they return home late for dinner, he adorns two of his children with a white ribbon that is meant, he says, to signify youthful innocence. What it really is, of course, is an emblem of sin.
Haneke means to remind us that sin doesn't exist in a vacuum. Acts of violence are the consequence of other actions, and the real story here involves the interconnectedness of events. A man hangs himself. Why does he hang himself? Because he has lost his job. Why has he lost his job? Because of an act of vengeance by his son. Why is the son so angry? Because of the death of his mother. Why did his mother die? That last question is never completely addressed (perhaps it was an accident, perhaps negligence was involved), but the bigger picture has been sketched out for us: the economic situation for most of those villagers who are not landowners, living at the mercy of the moneyed baron, is dire. It is a system of privilege that breeds resentment, and it's not hard to understand how children growing up in such an environment could create a huge, impressionable class of adults ready to strike out against an easily identifiable other. Haneke similarly underscores the predilection for punishment in this culture (with the adults making odious this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you pronouncements as they reach for the switch) as well as its tendency towards sexual and emotional abuse. Small wonder the little kids learn righteous retribution as a way of life.
If it all sounds a little obvious, well, it is. The sins of the fathers, etc. Yet any synopsis fails to convey Haneke's intricate, novelistic intertwining of stories; the stern, inevitable humanity of his camera's chilly gaze; or the boundless cruelty he's able to conjure from simple dialogue and performance. This film has a grand, moody power that goes way beyond its themes, drawing largely on the grace with which Haneke handles the camera and his actors. Owing largely to his decision to print the film in black-and-white, the images herein are strikingly austere, even in the context of the director's highly mannered body of work. Shot in colour, then desaturated in the digital intermediate process, The White Ribbon is full of uncommonly rich, high-contrast tableaux that amplify a bleakness and severity, not only in the picture's setting, but in the visages of those who inhabit it, too, including the largely non-professional child actors he cast. Those faces are terrific, photographed with an edgy serenity that I suspect owes almost as much to Carlos Reygadas, whose great Silent Light was released as Haneke was working on this film, as to August Sander, the German portrait photographer whose work in the early 20th-century Haneke took as a model. Check out the scene in which the 15-year-old Roxane Duran, big eyes and nose and tiny mouth, explains the concept of death to her pouty kid brother, or the one in which Rainer Bock, seen peering over his shoulder to spit the words out, utterly dismantles the midwife, played by Susanne Lothar--a lovely woman with a terrific smile who barely gets to use it in this film--in an act of violence that would be painful if it weren't so clearly constructed by Haneke as a dramatic tactic.
I was put in mind of two films specifically. First, because it similarly depicts a small community that's being terrorized by someone who purports to be punishing malfeasance, Clouzot's terrific WWII-era Le Corbeau, about a poison-pen letter-writer targeting civic leaders in a French village. (Clouzot was accused of selling out and making anti-French propaganda for the Nazis, a charge that appears to hold water only if you don't know what a dim view Clouzot took of all humanity, French and otherwise.) Second, for fairly obvious reasons, Fanny and Alexander. The strict Lutheran household those two unfortunate Bergman protagonists inhabit for too much of that film has a lot in common with the priest's house in The White Ribbon. But where Fanny and Alexander is ultimately an exhilarating kind-of adventure film with love and life to spare, The White Ribbon is finally draining. At 144 minutes, it's a bitch of a lecture. (There's something hilarious about the utterly professorial Michael Haneke making the narrator of this film a schoolteacher.) And, ultimately, that's the problem.
The White Ribbon is executed at an incredibly high level of craft and with an off-putting degree of self-confidence. While it is, at times, a movie of preternatural beauty, Haneke is confident that he's shining a light into the dark corners of recent human history, and he comes on like a preacher reading from the Book of Revelation. When some directors go for ambiguity in film, it feels as if they're still searching and that they're sharing something about their journey with the audience. Even the supremely mechanical Caché felt a little playful in this regard, tantalizing its audience by suggesting it may yet be possible to solve the puzzle, a surveillance mystery, that sets the story in motion. But Haneke often seems infuriatingly sure of himself--never more than he does here, in a film that purports to dig into the more daunting problems of human existence.
Regardless of the validity of Haneke's thesis about the roots of extremism in any culture (perhaps realizing that his choice of setting for this film may seem a bit opportunistic, he's been distancing himself from the whole Nazi thing in interviews), his premise is spoiled by the utter lovelessness of its backdrop, a landscape of dogmatic repression in which punitive violence is both learned behaviour and a foregone conclusion. Historians can only speculate on the roots of terrible violence; conjuring a world that provides exactly the evidence he needs, populated by monsters raising children in their own image, Haneke declaims on them with a certainty that feels unearned. There's much in The White Ribbon that rings true, but the airless homes and pre-determined caricatures become stifling. A film to admire, it nevertheless takes place in a world deliberately leached by its maker of colour, comfort, and joy.
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THE BLU-RAY DISC
The White Ribbon's 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray video transfer is truly amazing, boasting fine detail that doesn't quit. Some of the exterior daylight shots, dominated by bright highlights and deep, detailed shadows, had me leaning forward in my seat to peer at the grain structure--the picture is so clean in places that I wondered for a moment if the movie was shot digitally. But the dynamic range seemed too broad for today's digital cameras, and other shots retain an apparent layer of film grain that betrays 35mm origins. In one of this disc's extras, Haneke mentions how the digital intermediate (DI) process allowed him to get unusually sharp monochrome images, and mastering the Blu-ray directly from DI elements allows technicians to keep all but the finest grain from the original camera negative at bay. (Release prints would have more grain from the additional photochemical generations involved in their creation after the DI is completed.) This BD is a great showcase for cinematographer Christian Berger's work--it's no wonder he was nominated for an Oscar and won the award from the American Society of Cinematographers last year.
The audio is flawlessly delivered in two different 5.1 DTS-HD MA versions. One of them is the entire film in German with (white) English subtitles. The other offers The White Ribbon with only the voiceover narration dubbed in English--all of the dialogue is still in German with (again, white) English subtitles. I sampled both tracks and noted no difference in sound quality, but I much prefer the German narration. Still, this is one case where the English dub is at least defensible. Fidelity is fine, though as far as surround sound goes, this is one of the mildest tracks I've ever heard, with virtually every sound element steered front and centre.
Although the special features are generally interesting, they will test your tolerance for talking-head footage, especially since they're uniformly presented in standard definition. (I'm sure there are understandable business and budgeting reasons for this, but SD video is ugly and this whole industry needs to get with the HD program already.) I suggest starting with the "Cannes Film Festival Premiere" (19 mins.), which shows Haneke being quite forthcoming about his intentions at a press conference. If you finish the film wondering what the hell just happened, this will help you sort it out. (Several members of the cast also take questions.) Equally useful is "An Interview with Michael Haneke" (14 mins.), wherein he discusses the film, his intentions, and his inspirations in even more generous detail.
If you're ready for more on The White Ribbon, a short (39 mins.) "making of" documentary titled "Fragmente der Chronologie einer Dreharbeit" (the title is a reference to Haneke's 1994 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) contains a heaping helping of B-roll from the set of the film along with another round of Haneke interviews. The centrepiece of the bonus material is a Michael Haneke episode of "My Life" (50 mins.), a documentary series from German public television, which considers his entire career--including, incidentally, spoilers from his most important films. It finds Haneke discussing his thematic concerns and filmmaking methodology alongside interviews with current and previous collaborators like Susanne Lothar and a delightful Juliette Binoche, who refers to him at one point as "the swine!" over a comment he made on French versus German actors. On the subject of difficult material in his films, Haneke declares, "The ideal is for the scene to be such that people look away because they can't deal with it."
It's all good stuff, each supplement bringing a different set of insights and observations on Haneke, but the package suffers from a sense of sameness--before you finish spending two hours digging through everything, it'll feel like Haneke's crawled inside your earhole and won't come out. Best to consume it piece by piece unless you're some kind of superfan. Rounding out the disc, a HiDef trailer for The White Ribbon, plus HD previews for Sony properties The Secret in Their Eyes, Get Low, A Prophet, Chloe, The Last Station, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, Waltz With Bashir, and Wild Grass. Originally published: June 28, 2010.