Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes the bleakest and most disturbing films you have ever seen. He also makes some of the most beautiful, intelligent and relevant films to flicker against the screen. Whether it is the horrifying Funny Games or the Kafkaesque Cache the Teutonic cineaste manages to challenge what he calls the “American barrel down cinema that dis-empowers the viewer”. Haneke makes films that demand genuine and, more often than not, uncomfortable cogitation.
White Ribbon is Haneke’s latest celluloid offering and it is simply sublime. The German language film won the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for two Academy Awards. The stark black and white film depicts life in Northern Germany in a small village just prior to World War I as remembered by the local school teacher. Village life is stiflingly ruled by a triumvirate patriarchy of bastards comprised of a doctor, pastor, and baron. When the puritanical pastor gives confirmation classes he provides the child students with white ribbons to remind them of the innocence and purity from which they have strayed. When accidents, misadventures, and malevolent deeds occur the story becomes a study in fear and social dynamics. It is a mystery without simple answers and the questions it produces are wild and terrifying.
The ostensible mystery story is of course an allegory on terrorism. When terrible things happen and there is no resolution, there is no justice, it erodes society and its values and it is a catalyst for future chaos. But terrorism is rooted in a cause, sometimes legitimate and sometimes not, and more often unrealized by those with power. In White Ribbon the perpetrator (or perpetrators) of the crimes is not readily apparent and seeing through the crimes to understand motivation is equally difficult if not impossible. How the events relate to the pending world war is equally troubling and intriguing.
Visually stark and stunning the painterly black and white film is a masterpiece of cinematography. Director of Photography Christian Berger has made one of the most beautifully filmed movies in black and white reminiscent of a dynamic Bruegel scene. Haneke populates the haunting landscape with perfectly cast characters most especially the ribbon wearing children. It is impossible to view this film without thinking about Ingmar Bergman and the comparison is not unfavourable.
If you are tired of this year’s three dimensional turquoise Pocahontas films that rely on technology rather than art you need to see this offering. White Ribbon is a thoughtful, brave, and hauntingly beautiful film about the nature of evil.