White Ribbon/Das Weisse Band - Difficult Cinema
| If you’re anything like me, as the screen fades to black at the end of The White Ribbon, you might be tempted to chalk-up it up to being one of those films that you’ll admire with curiosity from afar - perhaps a result of the conscious artfulness of the film-maker keeping your emotions at an arm’s length. Then again, if you’re anything like me, you’ll sleep on it, and what you may wake up with is a completely different opinion. This film planted something inside of me that gestated overnight, and now for the life of me, I can’t get it out of my mind.
Austrian director, Michael Haneke’s latest venture into the darker recesses of the human mind is my first taste of the funny games he plays as a film-maker. It seems here that the intent is not necessarily to challenge our assumptions about violence, but simply to showcase its origins inherent in all of us. Sounds trite and true, but here it’s heady stuff, and while as a theme it might not be treading new ground, the structure and presentation feel like something I haven’t come across since Bergman’s The Seventh Seal .
The White Ribbon chooses a small town in pre WWI Germany – it’s story unfolding roughly one year leading up to the domino assassination in Sarajevo. More than once, through it’s two and a quarter hour running time, you may find yourself asking “who is that?”, “what happened?” and “why is this happening?”. Things aren’t spelled out for you – well that’s not entirely true, but perhaps more so than in any other film in recent memory, I found myself asking why the director was choosing to show me THESE things, in THIS order – to what end?
What’s ending in the small town of Eichwald, is the innocence of the children that populate the place. The town pastor punishes his own children into an idealized purity. A Baron chastises and dismisses his wife while inadvertently, and without remorse in hindsight, causing the death of a peasant worker in his property. A near-invisible wire is strung across a doctor’s property which fells horse and rider. There is no explanation.
But wait – something is happening here. Small signs of retribution for, well –something - are starting to show. More than one village child is beaten nearly to death. Property is destroyed. A village elder takes his life. Again – why? Not to say that there aren’t reasons for each moment of loss and destruction, but as an audience member, I found myself wondering where this was all headed in a narrative sense. No matter – you will be shown the way in the end – even if it takes you a night of reflection to let it all sink-in.
Well, I’ll say no more, save to note that there is a great deal of ugliness on display here. The doctor, who has little bedside manner to put it mildly, delivers the most vile dressing-down of a woman that I’ve heard since In the Company of Men. A lot of this is hurt for hurt’s sake. Not all of the adults are cruel, but something’s being passed-down from those who are, and the story seems to suggest that this is an evil spreading. Is Haneke suggesting that this microcosm of a village is really just an incubator for those who would commit atrocities in the next great war? Not all of the children in Eichwald are cruel either – but they’re learning. It’s enough to make one wonder if the Archduke was taken down by a second shooter – about 4’2” with blonde hair and blue eyes.
The White Ribbon is a challenging audience experience – repulsive, bare, and not for everyone.