Friday, February 19, 2010

Tragedy becomes Michael Haneke in The White Ribbon

Posted By on Fri, Feb 19, 2010 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge WALK OF SHAME: Misery loves the company of children in 'The White Ribbon.'
  • WALK OF SHAME: Misery loves the company of children in 'The White Ribbon.'

Michael Haneke must have ruled that color was too good for the village of Eichwald in his pre-World War I drama The White Ribbon. Instead, the Austrian renders the benighted town in stark black-and-white cinematography, as if he's withholding the comfort of nature's beauty from Eichwald's quietly desperate villagers. During the harvest festival that provides the film with an uncharacteristically happy scene (at first ...), the narrator remarks that the neighbors gathered, "first in a joyful mood, then in horror and perplexity."

The Horror and the Perplexity might be a more appropriate name for The White Ribbon, with its relentlessly cruel and discomforting vision of family dynamics and the social compact. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and this year's Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, The White Ribbon maintains such a grim, punishing tone, its themes feel like foregone conclusions. Nevertheless, the film recounts an arresting narrative in spite of its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.

The town's young school teacher (Christian Friedel) recounts the tale in voice-over as an elderly man. He acknowledges he doesn't know if the story is true, but that it could hold an explanation for the subsequent events of German history. Eichwald comes across not only as agrarian, but nearly feudal, with a local baron serving as first citizen and primary employer. Crimes and mishaps plague the village, beginning with the town doctor's fall from a horse due to some strategically placed wire. A farmer's wife fatally falls through rotten wood in the attic of the baron's sawmill. Her son takes out his frustrations by decapitating cabbages, and a more terrible fate befalls a child the same day. The crime wave sets the town aflame with gossip and suspicion, but audiences who've seen Haneke's excellent drama Caché know not to expect a tidy resolution to the whodunit.

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(Photo ©Films du Losange/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

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