“THE WHITE RIBBON,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, 145 minutes, rated R.
Michael Haneke’s terrific film, “The White Ribbon,” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and now it’s a front-runner for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Its main competition is France’s “Un prophete,” and for those who have seen that movie, you know the competition is stiff.
Still, there’s this movie, which is unshakably good, particularly at the end, when the disease destroying the core of the story (that would be humanity at its lowest depths of depravity) has gone on to fully reveal its dysfunction, its divisiveness, its backhanded brutality and its overall rotten awfulness.
The film observes the collapse of a small town on the eve of World War I. We’re in Germany. The film is shot in black and white. The images are bleak, cruel and stunning, not unlike the movie itself. Haneke (“Cache”) wrote the script, and just as his fans expect, he works by evasion, leading audiences to a well the reflects nothing back. Instead, we’re offered a deep sink into a bottomless darkness.
“The White Ribbon” is satisfying in its complexity, rich in its ambiguity. It’s a movie that demands you walk around it, circle it, trying to figure out exactly what’s going because there’s no way that Haneke is going to tell you. For those who like their movies spelled out for them, this isn’t for you, in spite of the subtitles. For those who appreciate the grace of a director who employs narrative discretion, this absolutely is for you.
The film opens with a man on a horse racing toward his house. Since the movie is told in flashback by way of the village’s now-elderly schoolteacher (Ernst Jacobi), we know the man is a doctor and that he breaks his arm when his horse trips over a hidden wire somebody strung between two trees. But who strung the wire? And why do they have it in for the doctor? Men show up in an effort to understand what happened, but there are no clues, no answers, and the doctor is taken away to a hospital far away so he can mend. Could somebody have benefited from his absence? Maybe. Maybe not.
To Haneke, it doesn’t matter. Braced against his own coldness, he presses on — there are others to undo in this village of grim-looking people. Look, for instance, at the dead woman ground up at the mill. What happened to her? Or look at the young boy with Down syndrome who is savagely beaten and left to hang in a forest with a bag on his head. Why? Or the barn that is set ablaze in the middle of the night. Or the pet bird whose throat is slit. Or the doctor’s midwife, housekeeper, receptionist and mistress (Susanne Lothar), who is told by the doctor (Rainer Bock) while she’s masturbating him to stop. Finished with her, he delivers one of the most cutting rebukes caught on film this year.
“Why do you want me to stop?” she asks.
“To be truthful, you disgust me,” he says. “You’re ugly, messy, flabby and have bad breath. Don’t sit there looking like death warmed over. I can’t go on with this. I’ve really tried to think of another woman while making love to you — one who smells good, who’s young, less decrepit than you — but my imagination can’t man-age it. In the end, it’s you again, and then I feel like puking, and am embarrassed at myself. At the hospital, I forgot how tiresome you are. One grows sentimental when in pain.” He glares at her. “Why don’t you just die?”
Death is, in fact, everywhere in this movie — it’s alive and well and swallowing the living whole. People are ridiculed and reduced to nothing. Children are beaten and scorned, particularly the children of the village’s pastor (Burghart Klaussner), two of whom provide the film its title in that they are forced to wear white ribbons of purity until he believes that he can trust them again (just why we’ll leave for the screen). Those children are Klara and Martin (Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf, each outstanding), and you’ve never seen such a mean-mouthed duo, the lot of which reflects their father’s own rage, which he repeatedly takes out on them.
And what about that? What does such abuse do to a child? Does it carry over to them? In this movie, the children move in marching groups; you’d swear they were a gang if they weren’t so polite to the adults they come upon in town. And yet there’s something about them the film only brushes against — are they the cause for the village’s atrocities? Could children be capable of such violent acts?
As a young man, the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) questions Klara and Martin when something else happens to the boy with Down syndrome. Klara is older and smart and direct — she’s a force. Martin is younger and cagey. The schoolteacher’s questions are relentless, and soon they leach over to the children’s father, the pastor, who preaches God’s word and sips from his cup, but who is one of the most ruthless, unkind people in the movie.
He’s so defensive when the schoolteacher laces him with the same questions that he threatens to have him thrown out of his house and into prison. Could the pastor be responsible for all that has happened, or is he just protecting his children? And how about the doctor, who suddenly has rushed out of town? Why did he run off?
Shot superbly by cinematographer Christian Berger, “The White Ribbon” is stark and haunting, expertly acted and directed, morally corrupt and memorable for all of it. It’s framed as a mystery, but really, Heneke’s sights are on his characters, the evil inherent in people, and how that evil, when organized, has the potential to grow into something darker and more repellent if left uncapped, as it is here. The white ribbons in this movie are meant to signify purity, but what we don’t see in this film is the power of another color — red — and how, years later, it would come to define another generation of Germans in another war waiting to bloom on another horizon.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.