06 August, 2010

Movie Review: The White Ribbon (2009)

When the wealthy, landowning baron (Ulrich Tukur) of the tiny German town Eichwald rises in church to announce to the congregation that an evil person lives secretly amidst them, the accusation is both alarming and relieving. A dastardly prank has left the town doctor (Rainer Bock) severely injured, and an unknown offender has recently kidnapped the baron's young son (Fion Mutert), violently thrashed him to the point of bleeding, and left him hanging upside down and naked in a mill. To know that a person would be capable of such ill will is a horror, but to hope that a careful investigation might discover and eradicate the culprit, restoring the town to peace, is a relieving prospect.

Michael Haneke, however, is a filmmaker who creates mysteries. He does not solve them. His films require the viewer to draw the proper conclusions, and they often force the viewer to think twice about whether the questions he's asking--the suspense he's caught up in--are even the relevant questions. Is something greater at stake? Is something else going on? Anyone expecting a startling twist and a detailed revelation at the end of Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Band) will be disappointed, but those familiar with Haneke's "cinema of insistent questions" will walk away with a horrifying glimpse of pervasive, cyclical violence.

Set in 1913 on the eve of the First World War, The White Band plays out in a context of societal violence. A war-stained empire was primed to proudly, patriotically enter what would be the bloodiest conflict in human history. Their children would grow to become the generation of Nazis. Antisemitism had already threaded itself through the Protestant Christian culture, and all of the country's misfortunes could easily be thrust upon a scapegoated minority. This historical setting has little to do with the specifics of the parochial drama that unfolds in the film, but considering that the movie is Haneke's first feature film to not take place in contemporary times, this historical context is important to note.

Specifically, however, The White Band is a depiction of individual sins and their ability to expand into community, national, and global evils. The baron describes one sinful criminal and the community believes him. I, too, found myself suspecting the unlikeliest of suspects, a polite young school teacher (Christian Friedel) who is seen fishing in the river after the doctor's horse trips over a "nearly invisible, thin, but very strong wire" tied between two trees and who is seen whipping a horse immediately after the baron's son is discovered to have been thrashed. I think, given Haneke's precise style, these clues are intentional red herrings, and suspecting the mild mannered teacher (who is also the narrator) also conforms to the mystery movie convention of the perpetrator being the most unlikely suspect. An additional reason to suspect him is the reason that the community would likely suspect him if the film had taken place twenty or thirty years later: with his dark, curly hair, his wire frame glasses, and his intellectual misfit manner, he is rather very Jewish. That he remains innocent in a town where almost no one is and that he ultimately leaves the town never to return again is a statement against the vilification of Jews, proof that goodness can survive in a hostile environment and that using irrational means to create and rout out enemies is no way to solve the real problem of evil.

The baron may be willing to scapegoat, but each of the townspeople, with few exceptions, possess their share of sin. With sparse, meticulous scenes divided amongst a large, impressive ensemble cast, Haneke illustrates a pervasive ill will, terrors and hypocrisies that lash out in every direction. The doctor appears to be a kindly old widower, yet he sexually abuses his fourteen year old daughter Anna (Roxane Duran), who each day looks more and more like her mother. He maintains an illicit affair with his hardworking, supportive neighbor (Haneke regular Susanne Lothar), but then rejects her with humiliating, cruel insults after having sex with her over the sink. Who would set a trap to kill him and his horse? Perhaps a local villain, but more likely his own daughter, who watches the accident from the doorway and, unlike her younger brother Gustav (Thibault Sérié), does not seem grieved by the mishap. The trap would be an indirect way to retaliate against a powerful, dominating oppressor, a way to end her years of incestuous rape. Given her maturity, her inheritance, and the dependability of her neighbor, she would also not have much to lose and plenty to gain. This is, of course, only my theory.

The film details many indirect responses to abuses of authority. In an unequal, undemocratic relationship, the submissive party when wronged has few safe recourses to retaliation. Revenge is therefore either carried out anonymously, is self-inflicted, or is redirected to a third, less powerful party. When the baron's neglectful supervision of the workplace conditions on his farm leads to the death of an older woman, the woman's son avenges the death and the baron's minimal response to it by destroying the baron's cabbage patch, a symbolic act which means, "If you don't pay up, I'll cut your cabbage (money) for you." His action speaks words without him needing to speak up. When the pastor's oldest daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is humiliated by her father in front of her classmates simply for having fun during recess, she silently slips into his office and impales his parakeet with a pair of scissors. "You take away my joy, I'll take away yours," the gesture symbolizes. Unprovable deeds of anonymous revenge are the most directly satisfying but also the most likely to be discovered.

Others direct violence against themselves because it gives them a sense of control, feeling, and action that harms no one else in the process. When the pastor's son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) is beaten and humiliated by his father for staying out late, he walks along a high, precarious bridge banister, tempting God to kill him. If he dies, his religious conviction tells him that he deserves his punishment; if he survives, then he knows that God has forgiven him. The panicked school teacher intercedes and exacts a promise from the boy that he will no longer punish himself with such dangerous existential crises. Later, the husband of the dead farmer woman hangs himself, his only escape after having lost his job during the controversy following his wife's death. The night before, one of the baron's barns (possibly the one his wife died in, though I'm not certain) burned to the ground. Did the old man burn the barn down and then kill himself in remorse? Or is the murderous, kidnapping villain also an arsonist? That mystery is never solved.

The baron is the most obvious source of corrupt power in the film. The cruel, incestuous doctor receives the most intimate examination. But the most squeamishness-inducing monster in the film is the pastor (Burghart Klaußner), who rules over a silent wife and a brood of creepy children. The pastor never ceases to remind his young children that they are mortal sinners, that they have failed him, and that they are destined for hellfire unless they change their terrible ways. When the children return home late one evening after spending the day supporting Anna, whose father just nearly died, the pastor reminds them of how disappointing they are, sends the entire family to bed without dinner, makes plans to beat them with a switch, and attaches the titular white ribbons to them to remind them that they once were pure despite their straying. It is soon after the canings that the baron's young son is kidnapped and thrashed. Did the overly disciplined children direct their vengeance against the spoiled, happy child? Did their inability to stand up against their oppressive father cause them to gang up on a small child?

The pastor sees his teenage son's sullenness as proof of masturbation, and after detailing the horrid fate that awaits him if he continues to abuse himself, the father begins to tie the boy's hands to his bed frame at night. Trust, free will, decision making, and privacy play no role in an authoritarian dictatorship. The rulers make the decisions, and everyone else obeys.

The most horrifying act of violence is one that happens late in the film. After the doctor dismisses his lover, she threatens to do something that will make him feel sorry but then quickly admits that he probably wouldn't care anyway. Soon afterward, her young Down Syndrome child (Eddy Grahl) is found blinded and beaten in the woods with an attached note: "The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Num 14:18). A premonition from one of the pastor's daughters suggests that his kids may have something to do with this horrendous crime, yet it seems unlikely that the children would leave such a note. Assuming that no one would have any reason to punish the gentle child, one must assume from the note that the punishment is directed against his father. The father of the unmarried woman's child is never stated, but one can easily assume that the doctor, her long-term lover, is responsible. Is harming his son what she means by making him feel sorry? And is she right in assuming that he--who has a legitimate, healthy son and daughter--wouldn't care? Does she punish herself and her innocent son more than him in this misdirected path of revenge?

As town doctor, the man caresses and cares for the boy who may be his son as the tortured mother looks on. In a following scene she hastily commandeers a bicycle from the school teacher, claiming that she has discovered evidence of the perpetrator who has committed all of the crimes and she must rush to the police station immediately to tell what she knows. With her son evidently locked up inside, she disappears and is never seen again. When the townspeople gain access to her abandoned house, they find no trace of the boy. After harming him, has she put him out of his misery with a mercy killing? Did guilt over her horrible, senseless crime force her to flee the city and her old life?

The doctor and his family also disappear abruptly the same day. This is treated as a mystery of the highest order, and the narrator describes an unlikely story of the doctor and his lover fleeing together, having successfully pulled off all the capers. Why might the doctor have actually left with his daughter and son? Could it be that he had impregnated his own daughter and needed to escape discovery and shame? Did the neighbor kill them and bury them in the yard? Did he kill his daughter giving her an abortion? (A haunting midnight scene about "ear piercing" suggests the possibility of late night abortions.)

Haneke leaves many unanswered questions at the end of The White Ribbon, but the likeliest scenario points not to one evil influence but a sphere of conflicting, misdirected evils. The school teacher announces his belief that the pastor's children are likely responsible for the crimes only to be denounced by the pastor, who--despite constantly berating and punishing his children for their ungodly behavior--thinks it impossible that pure children could be responsible for monstrosities. The children are likely responsible for some of the crimes, but the town has no small share of monsters. Even minor characters in small, tangential scenes reveal seething threads of jealousy, sexual infidelity, abuse, and contempt.

The baroness (Ursina Lardi) moves to Italy with her son after the boy is injured a second time by jealous peers. She explains to her husband that she can no longer live in a society ruled by hypocrisy, hatred, and oppression. Would she really find solace in Italy, or are these vices a worldwide epidemic? The film does not answer this question.

The movie does, however, provide brief glimpses of hope. The schoolteacher and his nursemaid girlfriend Eva (Leonie Benesch)--both outsiders to the town--provide a pure, progressive, compassionate love story to contrast the ugliness surrounding them, though innocents such as them were likely the first to be victimized in the Holocaust or crushed under fascism. The doctor's wide-eyed son, who has just discovered death, remains innocent, though age will likely corrupt him one day, and one of the pastor's young sons, who raises a wounded bird and then gives the bird to his father in sympathy when his parakeet is murdered by Klara, is capable of selfless acts. One of Haneke's most admirable skills is in rounding out even the most despicable of his villains: the pastor's face as he receives the gift from his son is one of heartfelt redemption and sadness. The pastor may be a cruel and manipulative autocrat, but even he mourns the death of a joyful bird.

Stunningly captured in deeply saturated black and white, The White Band's cinematography by Christian Berger evokes the tiny postcard paintings of forests, carriages, and snow-frosted church steeples found on the wallpapered walls of old people's parlors. The photography paints a horrifying tale with beautiful, stark images. Attention to detail is superb; the film authentically feels a century old. The nuanced acting, buried in ambiguities in secret passions, is superb throughout; even the many young child actors possess genuineness. The White Ribbon is one of Michael Haneke's greatest films, a mystery that reveals itself to be a horror film once one realizes that the mystery is not much of a mystery at all. Evil is not carried out by elusive masterminds. Evil is everywhere, breeding like a virus and burning like a fever.

The White Ribbon
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Burghart Klaußner, Rainer Bock, Christian Friedel)