The White Ribbon
Grade: No Rating
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Turkel, Burghart Klausner
Director: Michael Haneke
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Misanthropy can be a powerful tool in the chest of a filmmaker.
Few are as misanthropic as the German filmmaker Michael Haneke, and The White Ribbon might be the bleakest film that you will see in a long time. Reviling humanity isn’t a crime. It just tastes better with a little cube of humor. For all of its stunning filmmaking, The White Ribbon is misanthropy without the charm.
Inspecting the psychological dynamics of a small German village on the brink of World War I, The White Ribbon follows a series of mysterious unsolved murders that are driving the villagers nuts. The village life is dominated by several powerful father figures – particularly a cruel doctor and a dour minister who is a monstrous father – who fail to live up to the virtue of their profession. Haneke makes one gesture of conciliation to his audience –the courtship of a wife by the narrator, a schoolteacher re-telling the story from the distance, safety and sad perspective of the future. But that is a crumb of sunshine in an onslaught of paranoia and dread.
Like Cache, The White Ribbon sweats underneath the feeling of being watched. Even without videotape, the village is a crucible of surveillance. Children peer through windows. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. In this little Peyton Place of a town, knowing your neighbor’s business isn’t appealing. When one woman declares her desire to leave, she runs down an indictment of the village’s envy, brutality, and other very bad things. Andy Griffith, this is not.
Visually, The White Ribbon is quite impressive. It is shot on film in a stark black and white. It is a film of open gates and closing doors, creating frames within frames, alternately giving a sense of enclosure and disclosure. Captured in long takes, the camera alternates between eavesdropping gently and freezing characters in close-ups, leaving them imprisoned in their own isolation.
The White Ribbon has a weird way of seeming both like reality and like a dream. Without Haneke’s liquid filmmaking talent, without the film achieving such amazing verisimilitude, would the story seem comically over-the-top? Or is the Funny Games director entirely serious about the dire cruelty he sees in humanity? There is a disenchanting lack of sympathy found here, and little hint that Haneke knows that his concentrated mendacity isn’t the only thing there is.