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Review: The White Ribbon

Children of the götterdämmerung: Shades of gray in Michael Haneke's White Ribbon
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 13, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars

The White Ribbon starts with a black screen and an old man's voice (Ernst Jacobi, who played Hitler in Jan Troell's Hamsun and in a BBC mini-series) relating a series of mysterious accidents and crimes that occurred in the German village where he was a schoolteacher the year before the outbreak of World War I. These events emerge from the blackness into the light, and 145 minutes later, when the screen fades to black again, little light has been shed on what happened or what it means.

The White Ribbon | Written and directed by Michael Haneke | With Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaußner, Steffi Kühnert, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar, Roxane Duran, Josef Bierbichler, Fion Mutert, and Branko Samarovski | Sony Pictures Classics | German | 145 minutes

Just another film by Michael Haneke, designed to provoke and infuriate, posing hard questions and offering no easy answers.

Well, perhaps some easy answers. Haneke has a weakness for finger pointing, with the finger pointed usually at the audience. In this film, however, the targets of his disapproval seem to be the stock villains of a corrupt society: a crass baron (Ulrich Tukur), his boorish steward (Josef Bierbichler), the self-righteous pastor (Burghart Klaußner), the creepy doctor (Rainer Bock), the spineless farmer (Branko Samarovski) — characters representing all the social classes. And it's the children who bear the brunt of their malignancy — beaten down by oppression, intolerance, and hypocrisy, they hover on the fringes of the unexplained misfortunes like the pale automatons of Anton Leader's 1964 thriller The Children of the Damned, prompted by an elusive evil like the girls in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. These kids, the director implies, will grow to maturity just in time to participate in the founding of the Third Reich.

Haneke's moral, then, seems as black and white as Christian Berger's cinematography. (The film was in fact shot in color and transferred to monochrome in post-production). Against such evil, the schoolteacher's voice of conscience is powerless.

Speaking of the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) — do we ever see him teaching? Does he assert any of this moral authority in the classroom, where it might do some good? Apparently not. Also, as a crusader for truth, he's a bit lacking. Whenever he seems about to discover something, he retreats into complacency.

Of all the characters, then, isn't he the most culpable? Isn't he the one who's aware that something is wrong, and the one who does little or nothing? True, he intervenes to help Eva (Leonie Benesch), the 17-year-old nursemaid to the baron's children, when she's unjustly dismissed. But his ulterior motive is to marry her and raise a little bourgeois family of his own. Still, he's the character with whom audiences will identify. So perhaps Haneke is once again taking a shot at his favorite target — those watching the film.

I think it's more likely, however, that the director sees evil as pre-existing and inescapable. You can feel it in the stricken landscapes that, like those in Antichrist, harbor malevolence beneath their beauty. And in the interior sequences, where figures are constricted in tight geometries, labyrinths where the camera wanders past closed doors concealing unpleasantness. I get the sense that the character in the film with whom Haneke identifies most is the small boy who learns for the first time of the inexorability of death. An innocent victim who won't be innocent for long.

  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Entertainment, The Crucible,  More more >
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