Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Children Are Watching Us

The White Ribbon
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Year: 2009
Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch,
Burghurt Klassner and Susanne Lothar

It's pure coincidence that two of cinema's most sadistic living directors both had films released in 2009. First, Lars Von Trier infuriates the world and film critics alike with his excruciatingly gory, yet compelling Antichrist, and then Michael Haneke, whose films include Cache, Funny Games, and the utterly devastating The Seventh Continent, adds to his list of moody and mysterious masterworks The White Ribbon, a taut drama/thriller that is set in pre-World War I Germany.

Operating like an Ingmar Bergman film set in Germany, The White Ribbon is a film that examines the mounting violence, fear, and uncertainty that invades a seemingly calm village like a virus. Right from the first scene, in which a doctor, riding on horseback, is tripped by a wire tied between two trees, Haneke sets up the story and piques the interest of the audience. At first, the town is curious, because anyone and everyone could be a suspect. However, as more acts of violence occur, and as their graveness intensifies, it becomes clear to both the audience and the villagers that something is not right. Even more unsettling is the looming possibility that the children of the village know more than they are leading on.

Giving no clear answers, Haneke weaves together several other storylines that intercept the central story, starting with the innocent and truly good hearted school teacher, who falls in love with Eva, a young peasant who is hired to watch over the Baroness' children. Also crucial to the story is Martin, the son of the pastor who wants with all his heart to do good and be seen as morally correct in his father's eyes. The doctor is also noteworthy, and his dark side is exposed in snippets throughout the course of the film. He is cruel, domineering, and unable of showing genuine human emotion.

Morality and redemption are two key themes in The White Ribbon, both even tie into the title itself, the ribbon being a reminder for children that while wearing the ribbon, one must be good and moral. Religion also plays into this, for it clouds the judgement and influences characters left and right. It's a film that gives its audience much to ponder and question, and leaves enough room for individual interpretation.

Of the Michael Haneke films I've seen, albeit still unsettling, The White Ribbon represents a less critical and angry Haneke, without television and the media to serve as an influence for destruction, the film works on simplicity and the minimal actions that overall set the course for the rest of its characters. Not overly violent, like Funny Games, but the violence we view is positively cruel and harrowing. Not as soul crushing as The Seventh Continent, but the fates of the characters are universally dark. Overall, The White Ribbon has silent suspense pulsating through its veins, evil is on the horizon, the children we see before us could and would evolve into the Hitler Youth/Nazi party, the stubbornness and the foibles of the characters make them prone to horrors unforeseen. In the end, the violence isn't what shakes us, it's the normalcy overall that does us in. And boy, is it jarring.

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