Friday, November 15, 2013

The White Ribbon (2009)

The White RibbonMichael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" could be considered a mystery in that things happen for no apparent reason. The Doctor (Rainer Bock) breaks his arm after falling off his horse, which tripped over a wire strung between two trees. Not long after, someone abducts the eldest son of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur); he isn't found until the next morning, at which point it's discovered that he had been bound and beaten with a cane. A barn owned by the Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) is burned to the ground. The mentally challenged son of the Midwife (Susanne Lothar) is viciously attacked and almost blinded. Why is all of this happening? Are they acts of revenge? Are they punishments for the sin of weakness? Are they the beginnings of war, intolerance, and terrorism? Your guess is as good as mine. This movie isn't about solutions.

What is it about, then? The story takes place in the days before World War I, when authority was not questioned and life was lived according to much simpler routines. The setting is a German farming community, which has maintained stability by not upsetting the "natural order"; it was expected that the Baron would own the land, the men would have control over their women and children, and the peasants would not have the same rights as their superiors. The Pastor, for example, raises his children not to love God so much as fear Him, and he continuously instills the idea that they must feel guilty for everything that they do. So as to remind them of the path of righteousness from which they have strayed, he ties a white ribbon onto their arms a symbol of purity.

But in spite of outward appearances, purity is not something to be found behind closed doors. The Doctor, so kind and caring with his patients, grossly mistreats the Midwife and sexually abuses his daughter on a regular basis. The Baron is a demanding man who does what he wishes with no regard for anyone else, including his own workers. But was he, in fact, responsible for the death of a local woman? Or was it an accident? The woman's husband, while grieving, knows that he can't prove it either way. The woman's son, on the other hand, is convinced of the Baron's guilt. This leads to an act of retribution that generates even more hostility amongst the villagers. By then, memories of the previous incidents rise to the surface. Suspicion spreads. Distrust builds. People suffer.

All this is told from the point of view of the Schoolteacher, who narrates as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) and is seen as a young man (Christian Friedel). Even though he courts a shy young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch), he's not a participant so much as an observer, and he begins the film with a direct statement: "I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered." Indeed, the film plays not as an intimate portrait but as an examination of the facts cold, hard, and, to the best of its ability, honest. We see into the lives of the villagers, and yet we're emotionally and physically kept at a distance, which probably accounts for the film's beautiful yet haunting black and white photography. It would also account for specific shots that, in the hands of a different director, would reveal everything in graphic detail.

Consider the scene in which the Pastor lashes his children as punishment for lying and disobedience; rather than actually show the act and its emotional aftermath, Haneke films the entire scene from outside the room with the door closed, and he ends it before the act is finished. Also consider a long shot of a coffin being wheeled out of the village on its way to the cemetery; the camera observes it from a far away location, never once cutting to the faces of the mourners flocking behind the carriage. This is not the kind of film that gives closure. It doesn't even pretend that such a thing exists.

The real genius of this film, however, is that the intricate subtexts are in service of a relatively simple story. We may not have all the answers, but at the same time, the goal is not to be confusing; the goal is to present the facts as accurately as possible, at which point we come to our own conclusions. If there are any to come to. Maybe we're being told that, when a repressive way of life is preferred for the sake of maintaining the status quo, a different and more evil form of repression will eventually surface. It could be a totalitarian government. It could be religious extremism. It could even be genocide. Who knows? Anything is possible. "The White Ribbon" is a superb film carefully paced and cleverly structured, mysterious but not gimmicky, subtle but not lacking substance.

I have read much about Michael Haneke, but have never seen a film of his until this one. Haneke is a genuinely polarising filmmaker, some thinking he's a great artist and others who think he's a shock entertainer with no talent. So I went to see what all the hoopla was about with this film, which many people are calling his best.

This is a great film.

The White Ribbon is a deeply haunting, cerebral, strange, rewarding film, one that will make you think for days afterwards (a critic reviewing this film said it would haunt you for days. Try weeks!). Shot in beautiful, shimmering black and white (in fact, this is some of the best photography in a film that I've ever seen), the story revolves around a German village just prior to WWI, and the strange, eerie, creepy, and unsettling things going on around it. In some ways, The White Ribbon is reminiscent of unsettling horror films like Dreyer's Vampyr and many J-horror films (like Kurosawa's Cure) where things are deliberately left unanswered and the loose ends really puzzle you on a very deep, subconscious level. Many films have loose ends but I don't think I've ever seen a film have as many loose ends as this one does, but that's a good thing. The film even starts with a narrator saying "I think it happened this way. I'm not really sure". There are many nasty things going on, and many have suggested this is due to the repressed, religious upbringing of the village, but I'm not sure. To Haneke's credit, he never answers these things directly, and he also doesn't answer them in interviews that he's done. This makes the film far more effective and deeply troubling. Even writing about the film now makes me uncomfortable. It's that haunting, and that it is such a success on the arthouse circuit (it has already won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and just won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign film) is very encouraging.

While I can't judge a filmmaker on only one film, I think Haneke may in fact be the real thing. I plan on renting many more of his films (Cache and the original Funny Games), and I look forward to seeing more of his films.

Buy The White Ribbon (2009) Now

Michael Haneke, director of Cache, now brings us an equally disturbing, tension-filled story told entirely in beautiful black and white cinematography, "The White Ribbon." Taking place in pre-WWI in a small Protestant German village, religion and fear take their toll on the villagers as mysterious events and "accidents" take place around their peaceful town. The mystery of who might be behind it grows stronger every day and perplexes everyone. The most disturbing part is the fact that it seems children might be the source of the evil. I will be giving a bit more synopsis than I normally would, but I think it's important to properly understand the story.

This is not a film for the average movie-goer because it moves slowly, it's quiet, there are subtitles, it's not in color, it's cranked full of symbolism, and let's not forget it's two and a half hours long. However, if you are a film buff and like artsy stuff as well, this is your cup of tea.

I really enjoyed Haneke's strong build of suspense throughout the film. For an R-rated film, there is not a lot of on screen violence. Taking place off screen, you are left to imagine the consequences most of the time and that can be scarier still. Walking around slowly in this old creaky houses waiting for something to happen will keep you alert and interested and the time passes by quicker than you'd think.

This is a strong patriarchal culture. Father sets down the rules and the punishments for even the smallest of misbehavior and the degree of intensity and psychological damage being inflicted doesn't leave a lot of room for surprise that this could have been part of the generation of children who grew up to be Nazis. The children test their boundaries to see what they can get away with and the more they get away with, the easier greater crimes seem to be. Not that the adults are any better! The adults' infractions and bad qualities are laid out for the audience and all members of this society are concerned with proper punishment above all else.

The actual "white ribbon" is a punishment itself to be worn by the pastor's children after they act up. The white color is to remind them of the innocence and purity they should be seeking in their everyday lives and they have to wear them for the world to see.

The story is presented to us over a long period of time by a narrator who is schoolteacher to the children. His subplot also lends the film its only beacon of shining light as he falls in love with a nanny and attempts to woo her.

The children in this film seem mature beyond their years, even the youngest ones. They handle the heavy themes with faces of innocence that conceal the malice that might lay behind them.

This film had the best/worst break-up scene ever. This man laid out the most derogatory base insults upon this woman in such a matter-of-fact matter and it was so utterly raw and scathing, it made my jaw drop.

This is the best foreign language film I've seen in a long time and one of the best movies I've seen this year so far (even though it was released in 2009, it is only just now coming to theaters in my area). It has already won some awards and is up for Best Foreign Language Picture for the Oscars. Not for everyone, but a good hearty meal of a film to the right audience.

Blu-Ray Features:

There is a making of the film feature. They looked at around 7,000 children over the course of six months in casting the ten main child roles. Any children that were second choices ended up filling up the background in classroom and church scenes. There is some amazing audition and rehearsal footage of the children running through certain scenes and fascinating to see how normal and modern they look since their costumes and manner fit the time period so well that one could have believed they were just snatched through a time rip! Many of the adult actors were fascinated with the story and fought to get into this project. Not enough weathered-looking people could be found locally so the search went out to places like Romania where people had it much harder and could look more appropriate for the time period. The awards and nominations for cinematography were well earned, not only because of the beautiful final product, but in seeing how much they had to deal with cameras jamming and other problems during the process.

In Haneke's films, you never see any direct violence, but the humiliation factor of turning the children into outcasts or failures is horrible enough on its own to let the audience imagine the rest. Haneke talks at length in a feature called "My Life" about his upbringing, film experience, influences, and reasons for certain styles he uses in his work. This is a very detailed look at the career of Michael Haneke from his perspective and others who have worked with him.

There is a feature of footage of the cast and crew at the Cannes Film Festival where the film won the Golden Palm. They take place on a panel for a lengthy Q&A session with the audience talking about the themes of the film and motivations behind the characters.

Besides trailers and previews, there is also ANOTHER feature interview with Michael Haneke discussing the film. With all these extras, this Blu-Ray is packed with everything you could want to know about "The White Ribbon". Beaucoup d'extras! The cinematography awards were worth it for the breathtaking black and white and looks fantastic on Blu-Ray.

Read Best Reviews of The White Ribbon (2009) Here

Michael Haneke is arguably one of the finest directors in the world today. His works, like "Seven Continents," "A House At the Lake," and "The Piano Teacher" are quite troubling in may ways and in these works he often keenly captured the downside of the Postmodern Aesthetic, where often the world seems upside down.

This work is different; rather than a post modern turn Haneke's work has an almost premodern, very austere, sensibility with it's portrayal of a nearly feudalistic German farming town the edge of of WWI. As is in his other works, particularly "A House on The Lake." there is an increasing sense that something is not quite right in this bucolic setting.

The town's wealthier people (a Baron, a Minister, a Doctor, and a landowning farmer)all have a profound sense of entitlement, fatalism and are generally not nice people. The farmers,a modern version of medieval serfs, seem slightly more light hearted, but there is an increasing sense of dis-ease surrounding them. The only decent major character is the local school teacher, who also acts as the omniscient narrator looking back from the future (the narrator, the moral weaknesses and the black and white photography reminded me a bit of American film noir). Also the narrator who was 31 in the picture and sounds at least in his mid sixties (a time of the great war(s) and unprecedented bloodshed in the not too distant future). Besides the teacher and, to a lesser degree the baron's wife, the only really decent and caring people are from elsewhere (e. g.; Eva the teacher's shy but direct love interest, and the Italian woman who is brought back from Italy bu the Baroness to take care of her emotionally scarred childrenhowever the investigative police brought in to solve the mysteries had a mean, almost gestapo like approach to "law and order."

The plot is marked by a series of heinous crimes and mishaps, which symbolize both the the town's hypocrisy and the looming danger of "The Great War(s)" ahead. There is definitely a lot of familial viscountess here: the doctor's incestuous relations of his daughter and sadistic treatment of his midwife, the mean spirited actions of the Baron towards his employees, his workers and his family, the punitive treatment of the somewhat hypocritical minister towards his children: for example his tying his young adolescent sons hands during the night to prevent any nervous degeneration through masturbation, which for Victorian age Europeans was often thought as the cause of many major maladies; as well as the white ribbons he forces his children to wear, like a scarlet letter, for their very minor moral transgressions.

Finally I assert this movie is an allegory of the beginning of the Germanic quest for domination (and a microcosm of the then German national identity that carried out the "final solution) , which portends to atrocities, death, and destruction yet to afflict all Germansincluding those in remote hamlets like this movie takes place. The children who face varying levels of blind brutality in 1913-1914 in this bucolic setting could very well play a major role in the Nazi induced horrors 25+ years later. And the sadism they are exposed too in their tiny town they could well have led too such sadism inflicted on the world by the German people.

Although shot in a small setting, this is a big, and extremely though provoking, movie, and is definitely worth looking at twice due to the subtle nuances and the underlying thematic elements. As usual Haeneke, a little like Lars Von Trier (e. g.; his movie "Europa"),provides a disturbing message about the past, the present and the future.

Want The White Ribbon (2009) Discount?

Stunningly beautiful, shot in the exquisite black and white, with the faces of the characters looking like the old pictures from the beginning of the 20th century, The White Ribbon has the longer title in German, Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte -The White Ribbon A German Children's Tale. The longer title gives quite a good idea behind the mystery of the troubling, disturbing, and shocking events in the film that did not have an explanation by the end of the film and left some viewers confused and unsatisfied. I think that the film is very clear and if approached with the open mind and readiness to accept the subtle details in the storytelling and implication, the open end will not disappoint. Anybody who is familiar with the work of Michael Haneke knows very well that he does not make pure mystery/thrillers even though his movies have a lot of mysteries and often very dark secrets By his own admissions, he uses the mystery in the White Ribbon to show the origins of the extremism of all epochs, and what could have been the beginning of the darkest times in the history of the country. Looking at the life of one small picturesque village in the northern Germany just on the brink of the World War 1, Haneke explores the malice, envy, apathy, hatred, and brutality that envelop the village like a web, and lead to the outbursts of evil that goes unpunished and will bring the larger evil in the future. While watching the film, I kept thinking how much it brings to mind the films of another master of grim and sad yet compelling and thought provoking pictures, Ingmar Bergman. Two of his films remind The White Ribbon especially. One, The Winter Light, a tragic and thought-provoking film about a village priest (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who can't give much comfort and hope to those who need them as he feels none for himself. Another Fanny and Alexander, the story told from the point of view of two children, a brother and a sister whose lives changed tragically after their widowed mother married a local bishop, seemingly a charming and caring man. What would have happened to Fanny and Alexander, what kind of persons would they have become or would they have survived had they not had a big dysfunctional but loving family who saved them from the abusive, cruel hypocritical stepfather, Bishop Edvard Vergerus?

Like Bergman, Michael Haneke does not make the horror films but the computer generated monsters are simply a joke comparing to the real monsters of hatred and evil that found a place to hide and grow in the souls and minds of the characters in his latest film. It is a serious, disturbing, and thought-provoking film. With all its darkness and pessimism, the film has sweet, touching and even humorous moments. They have to do with the only love story in the film and come to think of it, the only love story in all Haneke's films I've seen, between the film's narrator, the local school teacher and the 17 years old Eva, the nanny for the children of the baron, the most powerful man in village.

One of the critics said that The White Ribbon is the film that will haunt the viewers for days and will be seen, discussed and thought of for the decades to come. I completely agree with that, and I feel I can watch it again and again. Yes, it is that good.

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