By Tyler Arp, SFR intern
The White Ribbon is a stark new film written and directed by Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché). Opening Friday, Feb. 19 at the CCA, it is the winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography at this year's Academy Awards.
Haneke's directorial career, which includes 22 films over the last 36 years, has granted him a generous opportunity for experimentation through which he has notably refined the art of storytelling; lacking the traditional plot structure, the White Ribbon's delicate narrative chronicles the events of a small town while avoiding Hollywood-style sensationalism. There is no magical event which fixes the world and provides closure, emotionally or otherwise.
In this new film, Haneke has created a subtle composition which de-emphasizes virtually every convention of mainstream film-making: The film is presented in black and white; the characters are not beautiful people; the story is slow and subtle; the film mirrors reality rather than providing a fantastical escape for the audience. The result is an effective piece that is at once emotionally vibrant, shockingly real, and tragically nihilist.
The White Ribbon provides a fictional first-person narrative which revolves around strange and awful events that occur in a small German town just before WWI. It is narrated to the audience many years after the events via the recollections of an old man known only as the School Teacher, voiced by German television actor Ernst Jacobi. Christian Friedel plays the part of the much younger School Teacher in his mid-20s; an innocent and neutral protagonist through which a complex web of personalities interact.
Four families are presented, each representing a different rung in the socio-economic strata. Though the film introduces the families to the audience as shallow and two-dimensional, deeply intimate and wildly controversial observations illustrate their surreal inner workings and behaviors. While drama and tension build within and between the families, mysterious and horrific crimes begin to occur throughout the community.
Incidents of murder, suicide, sabotage, and arson fuel suspicions and begin to divide the community. The children themselves are not immune to the violence; a disabled child is found bound and tortured in the woods; another is quietly molested. Though the School Teacher attempts to focus on manifesting his long-distance love interest throughout the film, he becomes swept up in an attempt to resolve the tragedies plaguing the village. However, not all mysteries can be solved—this concept becomes a central theme in the movie.
It is apparent that Haneke's message lies veiled behind the plethora of seemingly inhuman actions and unsolved mysteries. More important than solving a crime itself, it appears, is understanding the reasons that cause such behavior to surface. The narrator contemplates this throughout the film but can only speculate. Haneke seems to suggest that it is the social constructs we exist within, such as economic disparity and rigid spirituality devoid of love, that open the gateway towards the monstrous and sinful behavior we bare witness to.
It is interesting to note that the film was first shot in color and then converted to black and white, following trends in digital photography designed to maximize image control. Honoring the traditional black and white aesthetic, The White Ribbon is visually solid. Cinematographer Christian Berger (Caché) delivers the goods when it comes to creating a well-composed image. Though it wouldn't be just to say that the work is revolutionary, it is consistently strong and attractive; the combination of Berger's photogenic eye and Haneke's propensity for static shots leaves no shortage of creative sequences. The visual elements of The White Ribbon function in perfect harmony with the narrative to create an emotional powerhouse.
Acting left little to want with a solid performance by Christian Berger in his first major role. Strong performances are given by Ulrich Tukur (Séraphine) as the Baron and Burghart Klaußner (The Reader) as the Pastor. Most notably are performances by Rainer Bock (Inglourious Basterds) as the Doctor and German television actress Susanne Lothar as the Midwife.
Haneke is not well-known for providing an element of closure in his films. The White Ribbon serves as an excellent allegory for how good and evil acts manifest themselves in our world without explicitly answering why or from what they arise; more questions are asked throughout the film than are answered. It seems this is Haneke's way of pointing us towards examining something much bigger than ourselves: Each other.
THE WHITE RIBBON
Opens Friday, Feb. 19th
Directed by Michael Haneke
With Christian Friedel, Thibault Sérié, Burghart Klaußner, Rainer Bock, and Susanne Lothar