Review #568 - White Ribbon, The (2009)

Review #568

Director:  Michael Haneke
Cast:  Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch
Plot:  Strange events happen in a small village in the north of Germany during the years just before World War I, which seem to be ritual punishment.  The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes).  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Feature, Best Cinematography
Runtime:  144min
Rating:  M18 for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.

Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning The White Ribbon is one of the great foreign language films of 2009. Shot in color but was desaturated to black-and-white during post-production, the film is very much the quintessential art film – slowly-paced, beautifully-shot, and thought-provoking. 

It is an admirable effort by the much respected director of Funny Games (1997), The Piano Teacher (2001), and Cache (2005). Haneke’s intense interest in exploring the human condition, especially of its evil nature, in many of his films highlights his bleak view of humanity. In The White Ribbon, it is no different.

Very much a mystery-drama, Haneke’s film is set during the days before the start of WWI in a small, picturesque German village that appears ordinary at first glance but is actually sinister within. Narrated by an old schoolteacher whom we don’t see (we only see his young self), the film recalls the strange incidents that took place in this village back when he was young and still teaching there. 

The entire film is a record of what happened, and in black-and-white, it looks like a historical record. Many mistake this as a true story. It is not, but it could pave the way for us to understand how fascism rose to be a tyrannical force in Europe in the late 1930s.

Haneke only presents a factual account of these strange incidents, which are mostly deliberate acts of torture and violence. He doesn’t give clues as to who the culprit is. The genius of Haneke is that all his characters (even supporting ones) are developed in such a way that invites both trust and suspicion. 

Even though the villagers and the rich baron’s family form a close-knit community, there seems to be a cloud of mutual distrust. Even the children are curiously distanced from their authoritative parents.

Christian Berger’s cinematography is hauntingly beautiful, and when accompanied by spells of silence (the film has no music score) that are interwoven with dialogue and ambient sounds, it becomes at times mystifying. 

Haneke’s masterful grasp of editing and camera placement produce some very eerie moments such as a sequence shot in the dark showing a toddler at home trying to find his sister in the middle of the night, a prelude to a psychologically disturbing event that reveals a darker face of one of the film’s key characters.

The performances in the film are uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Leonie Benesch, who plays Eva, a shy and sweet village girl whom the schoolteacher falls in love with. Haneke’s handling of the numerous child actors is also remarkable not only because some of them are made to undergo a quite grueling experience, but also of the serious subject matter of the film, which straddles into adult territory. 

In the mould of the traditional whodunit, The White Ribbon offers plenty of mystery and the requisite suspense (in the mood-building sense). However, as any Haneke film would attest, it leaves us with no sense of closure and forces the viewer to react intellectually.

In The White Ribbon, Haneke has collectively and succinctly addressed issues of racism, class struggle, authoritarianism, sexual abuse, infidelity, incest, and violence, providing a foreshadowing of the evil that would come two decades later. 

While there is far from any causal link between the events that happened in this quiet village to Hitler’s rise to power in Europe, Haneke’s disconcerting portrait of a community whose children are raised in an uncomforting environment of hate and discrimination provides us with an understanding of how the seed of evil can easily take root in the most innocent of beings.

Verdict:  Haneke's ultra-bleak view of humanity culminates in this masterful magnum opus.





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