Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Black and White: THE WHITE RIBBON

Michael Haneke is a master filmmaker. With The White Ribbon he exhibits total control over every aspect of filmmaking as he creates an experience that tightens its icy grip around the nerves of the audience. It’s mysterious, but not a mystery, not exactly, although unexplained events do happen. Take the opening, where a small town doctor, out for a ride on his horse, hits a long, thin wire secretly hung low to the ground on his property, causing a horrible accident. Who hung the wire? And why is it gone when townsfolk come to investigate?

The film takes place in a small German village in the years just before World War I. The story unfolds in a stark, cold black and white. This is no nostalgic or historical color scheme. It comes with whites that sear and blacks that haunt. But despite such sharp contrast, this is not a film with a clear cut moral universe. Nor is it a film out to find the perpetrator and hand out justice. As the film quietly, patiently unfolds, as more mysterious accidents befall members of the community, we begin to sense only that the town is not as peaceful and pastoral as an initial glance would otherwise show. There is a darkness to these people. Haneke is not just laying bare dark permutations of human nature; he’s stripping the past of all rose-colored notions. When you think of your ancestors, the ones from so far back you know only their names and hazy, wrinkled photographs, you don’t often stop to wonder what they were really like.

Narrating the story for us is the town’s shy, young school teacher (Christian Friedel). He calmly lays out the facts of everyday life in this village, letting us into his thought processes as he tries to ascertain the identity (or identities) of the perpetrator of such increasingly violent “accidents.” Because he tells the story, he is beyond suspicion. But even more than the mere fact of his narration, his innocence shines on his face, which seems to exude both youth and goodness. We slowly begin to discover how the town’s respected figures of authority – the doctor (Rainer Bock), the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) – are not as righteous as they appear. But just because they are shown to be monstrous, barbaric people in their actions doesn’t make them responsible for the incidents that are terrorizing the village.

A child goes missing. A barn burns. A woman falls to her death. Are these random, isolated tragedies? Or is something much darker afoot? Much like the middle-class French family in Haneke’s great Caché (2005), who find their lives turned upside-down by the mere fact of knowing that someone is watching them when mysterious videotapes of their house begin to appear on their front step, the villagers are thrown into a quietly mounting fear. The teacher keeps his eyes on the children, a source of both innocence and malevolence. They walk through the village in packs, somberly and seriously. They know something is wrong, but how much do they know about why?

This is a punishing film, but also an absorbing, mesmerizing experience. It’s such a fully immersive experience that it almost feels like time travel. This village is rendered in amazing specificity and detail. Leaving the theater, I felt like I’d seen a great movie, true, but I also felt like I was returning from a trip to that village in that time. All manner of human pain is laid bare in The White Ribbon and Haneke makes sure that you don’t miss a single minute of it. It’s austere and disturbing, and yet it is balanced by both a sweet romance for the teacher and sense of encroaching tragedy. Some of these men will be drawn into World War I. These children will grow up to fight World War II. The evil that mankind is capable of producing will be given a far greater backdrop than this humble village. After all, what is terrorizing this village is nothing less than the darkest aspects of humanity. This is a film about how we treat each other, how we punish each other, and how we punish ourselves. This is a film for our time and all time.

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