There weren't many surprises when the Oscars were doled out a few weeks ago, but the fact The White Ribbon didn't win for best foreign film was one of them. After all, it had already won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and numerous other statues on the awards circuit in Europe and America. Maybe Austrian director Michael Haneke making a film about fascism is just too intense, serious and unrelenting for American voters?
The White Ribbon is all of those things. There are not any easy, clear choices to make while it unfolds. The viewer will have to make some decisions on their own, Haneke will not hold your hand as you watch his film. In the end, it's worth the work as The White Ribbon is possibly one of the most powerful, bleakest works of cinema likely to come to Tulsa in 2010.
The White Ribbon sets the tone from the very start: credits with no music, a landscape is slowly revealed from the stark, cave-dark screen. The story is set in a small German village during the years of 1913-14, just before the outbreak of World War 1. The village is insulated from other towns and its stern citizens rule over everything in their midst with a harsh, collective mindset.
A horse approaches the town and is brought to the ground by an unseen wire, toppling the rider and sending him off for a recuperative stay at the hospital nearby. This is the first of a series of mysterious events where the perpetrator(s) is unknown. Each event creates a counter-event, punishments or retributions that are exacted in increasingly savage measures. The villagers do not seek the aide of outsiders as the occurrences make them more obstinate in their attempt to control their neighbors and bury the truth.
The White Ribbon doesn't have a central character as its story is driven by an ensemble cast that exists as types rather than fully fleshed out characters. The film revolves around the villagers -- the children, the pastor, the schoolteacher, farmers, the midwife, the doctor, the nanny, the baron and baroness. Early on, there's no real connection between one another, but as the story moves forward all of these people are linked because that's how the village operates.
The village in the story is not a happy place to live. Its citizens have little joy, romance, love or happiness to keep them company. The villagers are chaste, repressed and dour. One of the few times laughter can be heard in the movie, it is framed against a suicide.
Michael Haneke is a director who wants to punish the audience and make us suffer. He seems to get a perverse thrill out of creating moments on-screen that make the viewer uncomfortable, squeamish, anxious, sick to their stomach, filled with revulsion and similar emotions. While The White Ribbon doesn't unleash this side of Haneke as much as past films (check out Funny Games, the 1997 original or his 2007 American remake), there are indeed Haneke styled moments. The never ending sense of doom the film has is completely overwhelming and not what might be thought of as pleasant viewing.
Haneke is not a director who embraces action. His films are slow, meandering and utilize long take after long take. He emphasizes a static camera as well. Scenes are arranged in varied frameworks of stillness where the image sometimes resemble photographs. The White Ribbon has all of these typical Haneke elements to it.
The film is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Filmed by Christian Berger in a black and white so warm, silvery and lustrous that there didn't need to be any dialogue at times. Images and images alone would have been enough as we watched villagers work in a field at harvest, the snow fall from the sky and the people as they go about their daily lives. Had the film been in color it would have robbed it of its atmospheric intensity. The lush, stark black and white freezes the story in a long gone era. Through it, we are immersed in a different time and place.
Berger is also challenged by the use of natural light in the film. The interior rooms are lit by lamp or candle, creating shadows and darkened voids in the houses. The soft interior glows are interspaced with piercing, jarring, bright moments of the village during the day. The realistic photography adds to The White Ribbon's potency as it creates an otherworldly tone that a film in color would not have been able to maintain.
With all the hubbub of the advances of 3D and the blockbuster mentality of over-the-top visual extravagance, it's refreshing to watch a movie that embraces the black and white image so completely. Twenty-four frames a second never looked so good. At some point in the future, even Avatar will be dated, not so for The White Ribbon. Haneke and Berger, by capturing this story in such an exquisite world of black and white makes it more timeless, never going out of fashion, no matter what technological inventions will come.
The White Ribben is a haunting, austere work by a director not frightened to put his vision on the screen. I admire Haneke's bravery. It's beautiful to look at, but it is an unflinching look at the brutal ways the group exacts control on the individual. If you want to see something fun and forgettable this week, go see Hot Tub Time Machine, but if you want something with unwavering, seething raw power that will be hard to put aside after it is over, go see The White Ribbon.
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