Friday, March 5, 2010

The White Ribbon: Tangled up

Posted By on Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 4:00 PM


By Matt Brunson


DIRECTED BY Michael Haneke

STARS Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch

An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, Germany's The White Ribbon also has the distinction of winning the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, at the same ceremony where the jury publicly denounced Lars von Trier's Antichrist by giving it an "anti-award." I plan to screen Antichrist in the next few days — The Light Factory is bringing it to town March 17-19 — so I'll be fascinated to see how it stacks up against The White Ribbon, which seems as if it could just as easily have won some sort of "anti-award" for (presumably) similar whacks at humanity.

Writer-director Michael Haneke, whose penchant for ambiguity worked far more successfully in 2005's mesmerizing Cache, here spins a tale about a small German village in the period right before World War I. Aside from the schoolteacher-narrator (Christian Friedel) and his sweetheart (Leonie Benesch), just about everyone else seems to be up to no good. When he's not insulting the midwife (Susanne Lothar) who's provided him with years of oral sex, the town doctor (Rainer Bock) is merrily fingering his own teenage daughter. The local pastor (Burghart Klaubner) ties his son down at bedtime so the boy can't pleasure himself (as the holy man explains, that only leads to sickness and death), but is taken aback when he sees that his frustrated daughter has killed his canary by ramming a pair of scissors through its tiny head. And just who is responsible for the string of accidents that's plaguing this already paranoid community?


Haneke's implicit suggestion that the actions of this village reflect the ideologies that would propel the country through two world wars has apparently struck many as brilliant but seems merely facile to me. Likewise, the decision to shuffle so many similar-looking characters on and off the screen (it took me half the movie to figure out which children belonged in which households) in an effort to dehumanize them proves to be equally disingenuous.

The evocative black-and-white camerawork by Christian Berger is striking to behold, but Haneke's brutal moralizing is likely to leave viewers black-and-blue.

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