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The White Ribbon

Dir: Michael Haneke

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

144 Minutes

Michael Haneke’s a great visual storyteller with a wonderful eye, and he draws incredible performances from his actors, but he’s also got a proclivity towards forceful didacticism that can make him pretty tedious. Funny Games has especially soured me on him as a thinker, being a film he was willing to make identically twice, for god’s sake, a mediocre horror movie whose ultimate point is a Media Studies 101-level observation about audience complicity in screen violence, a premise which isn’t even legitimately presented within the context of the film, because the draw of Funny Games isn’t its violent premise or horror classification, but its auteurist stamp, and also because the violence in the film is willfully not enjoyable on any level. I suspect we look for different things in art, or have different notions of what the word means, but I really feel like his mode can be intellectually fascistic towards his audiences. It’s clear that his intention in prescribing certain ideas is to disturb, but our respective worldviews seem so divergent that sometimes all I can muster up in these cases is annoyance. In this sense, The White Ribbon is an interesting new work from him, because its beauty and relative warmth allow you to watch it and ignore its more reptilian aspects without feeling like a depressive intruder is yelling in your ear the whole time.

Between my first and second viewings of The White Ribbon, I saw a trailer for it before another movie. Amid a flurry of rabid blurbs, one stood out: Scott Foundas’ “it feels like a classic even as you are watching it for the first time.” It was a striking statement, not so much because of his implication that the film is very good (it is), but because the blurb is accurate in a fundamentally literal way. The White Ribbon feels like it was found in a time capsule, visually and narratively designed to evoke a classical European style of filmmaking. It’s a genuinely excellent movie, one whose immediate beauty and craftsmanship overpowers its occasional forays into bullying, its breathtakingly sharp, gorgeous black and white photography and long, graceful tracking shots sweep you up into its pure visual pleasure. The story mainly concerns a series of shockingly violent incidents in a small north German village in the year leading up to World War I. The conspiracy that emerges as our narrator – a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), now recalling the film’s events decades later – investigates these events is shocking in its way, but the points that Haneke wants to make with it are less compelling. The town’s children, led by the pastor’s daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus), mount a campaign of violence against any and all who “sin” in the town. Her father is, of course, himself a cruel man who educates his children through guilt, violence and shame. The culture of fear she cultivates among the kids ensures that not even the ones who are starting to have doubts after things get ugly will talk. The heavy-handed parallels are obvious.

Reaching concrete conclusions about cowardice and cruelty won’t help prepare anyone to resist them in the future. When I complain about the specificity of Haneke’s negatively charged foregone conclusions, I’m complaining about a seemingly innate resistance he has against human potential; he talks about how he feels humanity is inherently evil pretty frequently, but where can the conversation go from there? As the violence continues, we begin to learn more about the details of the townspeople’s lives.

Sometimes they are ugly things, but what’s more surprising and moving is when they are not. The portrait of the town that emerges from this gradual unraveling is more beautiful and human than the cruelty that it is faced with. As a dramatist, Haneke’s sensitivity to the explosive nature of human feeling leads to some really stunning moments. My favorite shows a young boy, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), through a series of childish inquiries, accidentally backing his sister into a corner and getting her to both explain death to him and to admit that his mother had actually died and not disappeared years earlier. He throws his food off the table and just stares at her, the camera lingering over his face – the indignation is chilling, so pure and disbelieving that it takes you back to the moment you felt that way for the first time as well. The White Ribbon is mostly composed of closely observed moments of truthful emotion just like that one. It feels at odds with itself at times, but its beauty is ultimately overpowering; it makes you curious to see where Haneke’s going to go next.

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