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Thursday, January 07, 2010

The White Ribbon

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.-Exodus 34:7

Das wei├če Band (The White Ribbon)
Dir. Michael Haneke

The White Ribbon is very much an art film, but still retains the provocative, in the near assaulting nature of Haneke's other films. However, it is his restraint that is most surprising and powerful. The man who gave us such graphic shocks in films like Funny Games or Cache, doesn't show us a thing in this film, and that is as frustrating and disturbing as either of those works. This is an instant, certifiable classic film.

The film is told in voice-over by the former school teacher of a small village in northern Germany right before the first world war. This narrative device, the teacher as outsider to a closed community, is one of the myriad of self-conscious extra-textual references that this film maintains. The film references several Dryer films, Bergman in the early 60's (the steward looks very much like Gunnar Bjornstrand), and the later films of Robert Bresson, which may explain the narration. I am not a fan of narration in film, it works in only a handful of places: in Bresson's films where it is used to double the action, in films like Barry Lyndon (probably the best voice-over narration ever done) where its used to be contrapuntal to the visuals, and in more avant-garde work where its used to privilege or question certain senses over others (in quasi-mainstream cinema the opening voice-over of Texas Chain Saw, for example). Here it works to set up the action of the scenes that will follow. Like Mallick's films, or some of Ibsen's plays, to which there is a great deal of references, the film shows the aftermath of the events that would normally be shown, instead of the plot points themselves. The narration serves to provide a sense of foreboding, which plays with our anticipation and causes the audience to focus on what would seem uninteresting post-script to the events of the story. The film seems to be reminiscent of the novels of William Golding (Lord of the Flies, Darkness Visible) and the Ibsen that gets through is that which has gone through Tennesse Williams first.

We are introduced to the villagers: the Baron and his family, the Steward and his family, and the Doctor and his family. The Baron works his employees too hard, the Steward employs Draconian methods to try and keep his children pure (where we get the title, a white ribbon to serve as a reminder of purity), and the Doctor, who seems to the most human of the three yet has all sorts of skeletons in his closet. In the second half of these films, as we go deeper into each family, we see things are far different.

To these powerful families we are given three others: a family of the Baron's workers who have lost their mother and blame the Baron, the mistress of the doctor and her handicapped son, and the school teacher as he attempts to woo the young nanny of the Baron. The plot is as ambiguous as it is complicated, but a serious of strange accidents happen, and the teacher senses that something isn't quite right with these families or their children.

The village acts as a microcosm of a larger society in particular, and humanity in universal, much the way Von Trier attempted to do in Dogville. But Haneke succeeds where Von Trier failed. Haneke is far more restrained, doesn't go off making sweeping statements, and adds levels of depth to these characters, even if some may just be types or allegories, that seems far more respectful to them as characters and to the audience's intelligence. Because of that, where Dogville could only be a misguided post-Brechtian allegory, The White Ribbon becomes a full-fledged epic, where these small events and the individuals involved, take on mythic, near biblical stature (reminiscent of Dostoevsky, some Faulkner, and even Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion). I was not surprised when I discovered that Haneke had been writing this for ten years and felt he had enough material for a three-part miniseries. There is so much going on here to warrant such a presentation, but as a single film its depth of material is really what adds to its mystery and depth.The cinematography is nearly textbook as far as framing, a scene where a grieving husband goes to see the body of his deceased wife is staggering in its composition. This is a difficult film, in its process, and also its content, but it is a masterful film it has the art-film focus on process, and a deliberate pace, but it is a mystery in the deepest sense of the word.

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