The White Ribbon
aka Das weiße Band
First screened and reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Michael Haneke. Cast: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Rainer Bock, Leonie Benesch, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Roxane Duran, Miljan Chatelain, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Michael Franz, Sebastian Hülk, Kai Matina, Fion Mutert, Birgit Minichmayr, Eddy Grahl, Janina Fautz, Branko Samarovski, Enno Trebs, Josef Bierbichler, Detlev Buck, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Steffi Kühnert, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Sarah Schivazappa, voice of Ernst Jacobi. Screenplay: Michael Haneke.

Twitter Capsule: Haneke wags his finger more strenuously than usual, but what's his point? The visuals also beg us to admire them.

VOR:   The Palme d'or winner that drew some eyeballs in the States, but would anyone make it the centerpiece of a Haneke revival? I've heard cases for its quality but not for its freshness.

Photo © 2009 X-Filme/Wega Film/Les Films du Losange/Lucky Red/
Sony Pictures Classics

After the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, The White Ribbon offers our second chance in Awards Season '09 to watch a frequent producer of great movies and his world-class technicians make a big, awkward lunge for that Entomology Ph.D. they have always wanted. I disliked A Serious Man more than I do The White Ribbon, possibly because the Coens' flippancy seemed just as noxious as their more sober aspirations toward depth and allegory, and there's nothing as off-puttingly poisonous about The White Ribbon as the blatant misogyny of A Serious Man. The White Ribbon feels more convincingly of a piece with itself, but only by comparison, and if it's not as hollowly scabrous as A Serious Man is, you have to credit the Coens for taking more risks. Never once does their movie feel like one that anyone else could have made, whereas The White Ribbon surveys a lot of thematic ground (German guilt, communal hypocrisy, individual and group perversions, prehistories of fascism) that manages to feel annoyingly redundant from other, more daring Haneke films while also, in a strange way, too broad for this idiosyncratic artist's point of view.

The film is full of oblique acts of human nastiness, in major and minor scales, any one of which might have been enough to power one of Haneke's surer-footed inquiries into the social and psychic layers of malevolence. Unfortunately, by encompassing so many of them, the film sacrifices a measure of plausibility as well as any fuller sense that Haneke has a particular target he's trying to hit, or a refined idea to explore. He seems to be concocting grotesque incidents (an incestuous affair, a bloody blinding of an autistic child) more from a compulsion to feed his reputation for dispassionate dissection of human morbidity than out of credible narrative demand. Moreover, the proportions of dramatic payoff feel totally off. The subtler, stranger calamities of a felled horse and a ravaged plot of cabbages have greater visual impact than do the more Guignol crimes perpetrated among the denizens of Eichwald, and more idiomatic specificity, too; you can feel why these "minor" events would induce macabre ripples in this particular, cloistered, pre-WWI community. By contrast, the idea that a baron's ringleted son could be strung up in a barn and tortured to excess without anyone around sharing an inkling of who did it, or why, both stretches the limits of belief and seems to import the over-weening, almost metaphysical grisliness of a film like Funny Games into a scenario whose driving impetus, stressed in voiceover narrator, concerns a historical inquiry into a particular time and place. I gave in to my biggest shudder during all 145 minutes of The White Ribbon when a young, fluttering nanny stumbled during her first three-count dance with the unabashedly smitten schoolteacher, which speaks to Haneke's ability to endow even the most mundane events with inordinate tension and power. At the same time, my reaction signals the misguidedness of how The White Ribbon grasps at the straws of over-literalized horror when the frayed nerves all over this hermetic township give him more than enough to work with.

If the narrative feels too congested and saturated with a desire to shock, a similar problem of overcrowding manifests in the cast. The movie feels too populated, while lacking a convincing sense of these villagers' longtime, entrenched familiarity with one another. As misdeeds accrue, nothing particular about these citizens sparks any wave of public accusation or private imputation. Instead, a dogmatic thesis about Germans planting their heads in the sand while outrageous events transpire around them overwhelms any detailed catalog of how, when, or why the townspeople point fingers at each other, or avoid doing so. True, The White Ribbon sometimes floats intriguing theses or images, but it truncates and confuses its most promising threads by pulling so many of them together and weaving them so roughly, resorting to broad strokes or smug obliquities when a more sustained investigation would surely have been more eloquent. For instance, one strapping farmhand's revenge on the local land baron is equally peculiar for the odd mode of attack as for his undisguised admission of having committed the act, and for the muddled, despondent reasoning that prompted him toward such a stark but inchoate protest. Unfortunately, having laid the groundwork for this bizarre contestation between lord and underling, triangulated around an offscreen victim (a woman, not coincidentally, in a town and in a movie that relegate women to a fitfully interesting sideline), The White Ribbon moves on too quickly to other local aggressions, without uncovering any deeper layers beneath this strange, volatile standoff. Meanwhile, whether intentionally or not, the incongruous plotline of puppy romance near the center of the film plays as a sort of embedded, even apologetic ballast for the film's overweening wallow in neurosis and sadism. But that contrapuntal plotting feels too schematic to let the love-plot breathe, and the actors who propel it, especially Leonie Benesch as that errant, eyelash-batting waltzer, pollute their performances with overplayed expressions of adolescent awkwardness.

Haneke is such a resolutely gifted filmmaker that his scenes make an impression even when they are quickly overwhelmed by his stern but driftless screenplay, or by his failures to judge how much gruesomeness is enough. Many key sequences start better than they finish, and the strongest ones are usually the quickest and quietest. One largely static scene of a small child tip-toeing down a staircase and searching through the dark house for his older sister is more evocative in its cavernous, underlit stillness than it is upon reaching the scene's conclusion, amid outrageously bright lighting. By the same token, the child's tearful desperation feels more honestly observed than the seedy, already-obvious scandal upon which he stumbles before getting back to bed. There's a midfilm suicide in which Haneke reverses the problematic proportions of scenes like these, hustling the scene swiftly into the discovery of a dangling corpse and thereby skipping the usual, portentous build-up. He then prolongs the stupefied, unblinking point-of-view shot from the vantage of the survivor-discoverer. Accented by the simple but evocative sound cues of the farm tools and riding equipment jangling on the door of the shed as it swings open, this shot, unusually in The White Ribbon, grounds itself in the character's perspective rather than opting for a harsh, rapid cut just as the dead body has been glimpsed—the kind of move Haneke often makes, superficially implying restraint but in fact seeming much more sensational than a commitment to his characters' experience.

Despite, then, the prevalence of such adjectives in admiring reviews of the film, I saw little that was "tactful" or "restrained" in this long disquisition on vague, essentially warmed-over themes, filtered through the narration of a character who appears to know more than he should and yet adds little insight or context to his illustrated recollections. Simply confessing that these memories are incomplete and irresolvably ambiguous, as the script has him do, is not enough to get the film off the hook (as it were) of its wonky perspective. Certainly nothing in his vantage, either within the 1913-14 timeframe or as implied by the retrospective recounting, explains The White Ribbon's ostentatiously crisp, high-contrast black-and-white photography. Under this visual regime, even the more mundane frames look elegant, but the light never looked especially "period." At worst, it rhetorically solicits us to perceive the film as a sharp, unblanching look at though material and as a gratuitously aestheticized object—nice for reaping awards, but only arguably in service of the story. The monochrome prompts a pervasive association with the white ribbons worn by the pastor's children, tied around their arms to remind them of their obligations to piety and innocence, but this visual analogy seems disappointingly literal, too, and doesn't seem all that meaningful in relation to the film's frequent, picturesque cutaways to snow-covered trees, bending waves of wheat, or the blinding blazes of an arsonist's fire. These all connote scenery and spectacle, prettied up to its own admittedly striking ends.

Haneke is fully clear that, as an approach to inciting moral behavior, the pastor's Scarlet Letter-ish white ribbons are arbitrary, useless, and hypocritical. But in most of his narrative and visual decisions, Haneke too comes across as weirdly prescriptive, assigning us to ascribe High Art status to a film that feels neither original nor acute: virtues that many Haneke films exhibit while begging less hard for our admiration. It's a shame that the movie delivers so much less than one expects, especially given the impressive production design, some good performances from Requiem's Burghard Klaußner and Haneke regular Susanne Lothar, and the overall pedigree of the auteur. I wish Haneke hadn't won his long-postponed Palme d'or for one of his emptier efforts, but as more than one Croisette-watcher has opined in the past, even the strongest directors often win the Palme not for their best movie but for the one that feels most covetous of prizes. With Palme in hand, maybe Haneke can get back to telling more truth, in more coherent and convincing ways. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography: Christian Berger
Best Foreign-Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'or (Best Picture); FIPRESCI Prize
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Cinematography (Christian Berger)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography (Christian Berger)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Cinematography (Christian Berger)
European Film Awards: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay

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