A village in Protestant northern Germany. 1913-1914. On the eve of World War I. The story of the children and teenagers of a choir run by the village schoolteacher, and their families.
Michael Haneke will probably never make a romantic comedy or direct the third entry in the Sex and the City film series, so it seems pointless to moan that his most recent film is one of his grimmest yet. For those that don't know him, he's the talented Austrian director who made one of the best films of the last decade (Hidden) and remade one of the nastiest films of the previous decade (an English language version of his own shocker Funny Games). He is a man that brings to his films all the appeal of a rusty penknife, but quite often leaves more of a lasting impact on the viewer than many much-praised English or American filmmakers.
This tricky little film was one of the biggest critical successes of last year, and received two Oscar nominations. I didn't like it as much Hidden or a number of his other films. It's far too long, and although containing many interesting ideas, I'm not wholly convinced they are translated well from Haneke's brain to the screen.
For me, The White Ribbon was one of the oddest films of 2009. Set in a German village on the eve of World War I, it looks at a series of disturbing events which subtly escalate as the many story strands play out. A man falls from his horse as a result of some trip wire placed neatly across his daily route. A budgie is murdered. A handicapped boy is tortured. The harvest food is destroyed. Then a barn burns down. All these worrying events involve the children or young teenagers of the village, giving the haunting impression that youth itself is fighting back against the suffocating dullness of the surroundings. But don't worry. This isn't an art-house Harry Brown. Michael Caine doesn't turn up to gun down the little tikes. No, something even more sinister is at work here, something which becomes clear when the film is put into the context of its time; a semi-twist that can be sussed out before the end, but is realised for sure during the closing scene of the movie. I'll warn you now; it doesn't end with all the villagers skipping round hand in hand with the recent traumas becoming distant memories. If anything, it seems as if the real horror is yet to come.
For the average member of the public, The White Ribbon will be as unwelcome as an evening spent in a youth detention centre. You get to spend two and a half hours with children you could never like while their parents behave beastly towards them and each other. And it's all shot in piercing black and white. If you see a high definition print like I did, you'll feel like the greys and sharp white images are permanently engrained into your retinas. This isn't easy viewing, but it isn't meant to be, and those who have the time and patience for such an unforgiving film will enjoy soaking up the menacing atmosphere and sickly characters.
Although I speak of a potential twist, this could be read as an entirely ambiguous piece of filmmaking, simply there to exist as an in-depth study of human behaviour. It does pose more questions than it answers, but following the same contradictory trend as many of Haneke's other efforts, it isn't supposed to offer a tidy and happy resolution. The title comes from the act of tying a strand of white ribbon to a child's arm or wrist to remind them of the need for purity and good conduct. It represents both an advisable lifestyle and the restraints adults impose on their children. One of the elder boys in the film, Martin, gets into trouble after he and his friend masturbate, and his father tells him his body will grow weak as a result of his actions. So, his dad ties his hands to the bed at night to stop him doing the forbidden action to himself, but also to teach him that he should be listening to another force other than his own teenage sexual desires. He should be listening to the guiding words of God and abstain from such practice to honour the body the lord has given him. This is one of the most interesting parts of the film, with Haneke possibly hinting at a parallel link between the enforcement of parenthood and the guidance of religion.
A disquieting masterpiece or pretentious artistic drivel? An example of meticulous and intelligent direction or just two and a half hours of boredom? Depending on the way you fall cinematically (or rather, if you are prepared to indulge directors even when you don't like what they are telling you), this could either be your best or worst movie experience of recent years. Typically for me, it was neither, but I was impressed by its analytical (in the true sense of the word) approach to creating a thoroughly unpleasant atmosphere. I'm just not sure it is an experience I would recommend to any normal cinemagoer.
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Michael Haneke won the 2009 Cannes Palm d'Or for this two-and-a-half hour black and white study of German rural village life in 1913. Focusing in particular on the austere and often brutal environment of the village school, the film not only exposes the cruelty and hypocrisy of adults towards children but offers an insight into the undercurrents of patriarchy and repression that went on to shape 20th-century Germany. As the outbreak of war draws near, a series of violent and unexplained events shake the small community to its core. In true Haneke style, the film is less concerned with providing a definitive answer to 'whodunnit' than with examining the unhealthy processes that contribute to a sick, disenfranchised society.
In a village in Protestant northern Germany, on the eve of World War I, the children of a church and school run by the village schoolteacher and their families experience a series of bizarre incidents that inexplicably assume the characteristics of a punishment ritual. Who could be responsible for such bizarre transgressions? Leonie Benesch, Josef Bierbichler, and Rainer Bock star in this period drama directed by Michael Haneke (HIDDEN, FUNNY GAMES) which won the Palm d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.