Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon would play wonderfully as a companion piece to 2009's Antichrist. Originally, I thought the major similarity between films, besides certain stylistic sensibilities, was the attempt to convey a world free of moral or ethical bounds. Upon reflection, however, I've decided that, rather than showing a world with no rules, The White Ribbon and Antichrist portray worlds governed by merciless, absolute rules: you play by the game, and if you break the rules, you're punished. The White Ribbon isn't as openly graphic or aggressive, but it's disturbing nonetheless. I don't know if I've ever before encountered a movie so casually horrific. Terrible, terrible things happen in this film that go largely unnoticed, unpunished, and unspoken. Terrible things happen, and people move on. End of story.
The White Ribbon takes place in a small German Village the year before World War One announces itself across the continent. Small, violent events begin to happen to members of the town. A trip wire is strung for someone's horse. Cabbages are destroyed. A barn is lit on fire. The events soon escalate into truly horrific punishments. One villager finds a note at the scene of the crime which quotes a verse from the Bible about how the Israelites' children will be punished for the sins of their parents.
The film never directly reveals who is behind the attacks (though many an inference can be drawn), but the who isn't terribly important in this story. No, what The White Ribbon is concerned with is the how and the why. The plot supplies five households to watch the goings-on: the local pastor, a conservative, abusive father of six children. The doctor, whose wife has died, and relies on the local midwife to help with his two children. The Baron and Baroness, whose plantation provides work for most of the villages. The farmer, whose wife dies early in the film by a plantation-related accident, and whose children may or may not want revenge. And finally, the school teacher, just a decent young man trying to live his life. The film is told via flashback narration from his perspective. The film sets itself up as a mystery: surely, we think, we'll spend the film wondering what terrible human beings could be responsible for the heinous crimes committed. And we do wonder, to an extent. The mystery falls into the background, however, yielding first billing to the horrific crimes that occur in almost every household. Without giving away too much, I'll simply say that there's enough abuse, incest, rape, adultery, and deceit to fill two good-sized Wal-Marts. And therein, I think, lies the point of the film. The mysterious crimes committed are undeniably terrible, but are they worse than the events happening at the core of every home? Director Michael Haneke might be trying to say something about the tolerance of evil: when it's out in the open, it causes quite a stir. But when it's considered "a family matter," it's swept under the rug. Indeed, the perpetrators of the plot's central crimes could almost be considered the heroes of the story: they see the evil that no one else sees, and they dole out punishment as they see fit. It's a chilling idea: that someone is always watching, and will punish you in ways you can neither expect nor fully comprehend.
The below-the-line work is all fantastic: the sets are both sparse and evocative, and the editing is wound as tightly as a trip-wire. The cinematography deserves special mention: Christian Berger's black-and-white template is hauntingly beautiful.
The film's true success may be dependent on its fantastic ensemble, which takes the concept of community and runs with it for all it's worth. Without this sense of established social order, the film might have lost some of its power. The social order is there, however, as well as all the mistrust, secrets, and hidden agendas incumbent of any small community. The final shot, of a group of churchgoers, all unsure of who is attacking whom, and who will be attacked next, is enough to make the blood run cold. The White Ribbon isn't for all tastes, but those who are willing to try it will find something endlessly thought-provoking and all together worthwhile.

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