Monday, December 28, 2009

Haneke's THE WHITE RIBBON: Something new & less puzzling from the Caché-maker

At the beginning of Michael Haneke's new film THE WHITE RIBBON, the narrator, who sounds quite the ancient fellow, tells us that his story about what hap-
pened in this little German town de-
cades ago could perhaps clarify cer-
tain events that oc-
curred later. What? Herr Haneke (Code Unknown, Caché) is finally making things clear? Well, yes and no.
The White Ribbon is certainly among the most seemingly straight-for-
ward narratives that this German writer/director (shown at left) has given us. In a movie-making class by himself, Haneke is an expert craftsman whose work sometime approaches art. It's a sad, often despairing art, but unless you are one of those who must look at the world through the rose-colored (and too often hypocritical) glasses of religion, or one who wants his movies mainstream -- and happy, goddamnit! -- this is art that reflects all too well the state of humanity.

From those first quiet words of the narrator, we move quickly to a small German town in which a couple of troubling events have just happened. We see them only cursorily, but their aftermath (and the aftermath of that aftermath) we -- and everyone in town -- become obsessed with and stricken by. Terrible things continue to happen, which we see in glimpses and/or from a precise distance. But the things themselves, with one slightly shocking exception that takes place by a body of water, we do not see firsthand. Nor do we learn exactly why they happened or specifically by whom. Enough hints are dropped along the way, however, that by the (again, quiet) conclusion that takes place in -- how sweet and appropriate -- church, I did not need to know anything more. Nor did I suspect, as I have in other Haneke's films -- Caché, for example -- that things were being deliberately withheld and that games were being played with the viewer.

Nor did I feel, as has been often stated about this writer/director, that the man is misanthropic. If you possess any kind of reasonably clear view of our world and its history, you would hardly confuse reality with misanthropy. In any event, a filmmaker who can give us two characters as genuinely kind and hopeful as are the young school-teacher (above, left) and his even younger love, the Baroness' nanny (above, right), then show us their courtship in such a forthright, deeply-felt manner, is hardly a misanthrope.

The scene between that teacher and his prospective father-in-law (above) is terrific: another good example, were one needed, of Haneke's non-misanthropy, as is a splendid little scene between older sister (below, right) and younger brother (below, left) regarding truth and death. While you may counter my non-misogynist "take," with the fact that all these characters -- indeed everyone in the film with whom we spend enough time to know who they are -- eventually caves in to power, tradition, religion and the herd instinct, does not this response tend to be history's rule rather than its exception? How would any of us have acted, had we come of age in Nazi-controlled Germany? The movie implicitly asks this question, among many others.

Along the way, Haneke offers us examples of the misuse of discipline and its result; a lecture about masturbation from father to son (compare this sad, closed speech with the amazing, freeing letter on the same subject from Dalton Trumbo to his son in the film Trumbo); the end of a "love affair" that is certainly among the nastier and more hurtful ways to say goodbye that the screen has given us. The movie is shot in black-and-white (by Christian Berger) and the performances are all of a piece: slightly stiff yet very real, taking us back to a time when formality, even among the lower classes, was given its due.

Those lower classes, by the way, get their due, too, from Haneke -- as does royalty (the Baron is played by the wonderful German actor Ulrich Tukur), clergy, peasants and everyone in between. The Palme d'Or winner at the most recent Festival de Cannes, The White Ribbon take a hard look at the kind of cast-in-stone philosophy and hypocritical behavior that foment major trouble down the road. Though the movie views the road behind us, what it has to say will be no less true for the road ahead.

The White Ribbon is so very well made on every level that I cannot help but recommend it. My only quibble might be that what Haneke is telling us is nothing we have not already heard. Still, it's a message that bears repeating, since we clearly seem unable to either digest it or act on it. The film opens this Wednesday in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Film Forum, with a national rollout to follow beginning in January. You can check all scheduled release dates, cities and theaters here.

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