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Cannes 2009: Portrait of a Small Town on the Eve of World War I in Germany (“White Ribbon,” Haneke)

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

In a Competition line-up that is intentionally overwhelmed by intentionally controversial cinema (Tarantino, Noé, Park, von Trier), Michael Haneke shows them all up by making a respectable picture.  White Ribbon is more like a Western or an American television series than anything else, which is what makes it so much more audacious.  Simply, it deals with community.  It is a small village community bound to the estate of a local land-owning baron, and it takes place right before the First World War.   But the setting seems arbitrary; Haneke is dealing with his perennial themes of oppression, repression, violence, and hypocrisy in bourgeois families, and whether this all comes in black and white in the first half of the previous century or color in our current one, society remains the same, and so does Haneke’s incision.

White Ribbon’s boldness comes from showing a group of this society rather than a single family (Caché) or disconnected individuals (Code Unknown); the repetition of cruel patriarchs, exploitation, and silence reigns not among one but among all. Haneke, in this film that feels sprawling and restrained enough to be based on an old novel (it’s actually an original screenplay), conjures an atmosphere similar to Bela Tarr’s Satantango, of the grave, spare tight spaces of family houses and local gatherings that confine and bear down on the innocent and the guilty alike.  Stark digital photography eliminates subtlety of lighting, instead leaving only true dark or blinding white tones, where shimmering wheat fields and the empty spaces between houses in the small village cut unfriendly geometric space across the frame, and at night the insides and outsides of the village can be lit only by candles and torches.  It is a cold world, but one where children visit each other’s houses, the village’s teacher courts the baron’s nanny, and he, the doctor, and the parson all make house calls.  The community exists, but does not feel.

Weaving its way through this setting is paranoia, for violent and unexplained crimes lashing out at both the children and the adults, the poor and the rich of the community, begin with White Ribbon’s first shot and continue unabated and unsolved.  A doctor’s horse is tripped, a local disabled boy is beaten, a barn is set on fire: all serve to continually heighten a sense of ambient anxiety around and within this group that lives together but never seems close, never relate like humans.  Where another film might make dull social-psychology observations of cause-and-effect (beat a boy and he might torch a barn), this one is subsumed by the idea of a town organically manifesting terror through its quietly unending unhappiness.   As in Dostoyevsky’s Demons, the hint of a conspiracy behind the scenes causing horrible disturbances paradoxically gives a more concrete sense of communal activity than the barren visible relations between people of the town.   It is in granting so much pain and power to a community, to a group of people—and especially the town’s children—seen and unseen alike that White Ribbon strikes as something new brought to the cinema screen, or, perhaps more accurately, something old reinvested with some of its old power.

This looks like a powerful piece of work. I’m looking forward to it, and thanks for the thoughtful review.
“Portrait of a Small Town […] in Austria”? Well, it’s actually a prussian village in northern germany. That’s not unimportant, because the people there (at the north of Europe) are known for their rationality and callousness and i think Haneke has made a film about the roots of (not only german) totalitarianism or evil at all. Reminds me in a way to Bergman. I am very excited about the movie.
Ah thanks for pointing this out Christoph! How did you find that out?
The official synopsis says it’s “a village in Protestant northern Germany.”
My pleasure. …yes, the synopsis. And Haneke has won the Palme d’Or. I’m happy about that. Congratulations!
The Palme d’Or win is very pleasing news, indeed. As the chief subtitler of Haneke’s television films, I always thought The White Ribbon sounded a bit like The Rebellion (Die Rebellion, 1993) – a story about a crippled World War I veteran who returns to Vienna and gradually loses his faith… first in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then in God. His material sense of history is absolutely breathtaking.
Sweet history of life, i love theauteurs notebook. Its always refreshing when people speak fairly in their critique of works of art. The notebook rarely condemns a film, (if ever?) instead everyone always seems curious as to why a director went one way or the other. It gives theauteurs a one-up on bloggers whose trade is a series of tirades & skewerings of cinematic artifacts, rather than the wonderment & appreciation for all its forms. Thank you, theauteurs!! Great job, everyone!! Palme d’Or!!!
Just saw it and it’s quite teriffic. One doesn’t have to share Haneke’s extreme pessimism to be impressed by his dedication to seeing his ideas through (he makes most serious filmmakers look incredibly sloppy) and the chilly mastery of his style. His refusal to supply solutions to his stories many mysteries is the mark of his insistence that the cinema not be a panacea for life.

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