Thursday, November 25, 2010

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

The White Ribbon is a rumination on ritualized punishment by master film maker Michael Haneke. The film revolves around the residents of a small Austrian village just prior to World War I. Following a series of events both routine and unusually horrific, the peaceful life they've become used to is turned upside down. 

To say that The White Ribbon is an understated film is understated. It's obviously the work of a master film maker specifically for that reason. It takes someone confident enough in an ability they understand to be superior to craft a film as patient, studious and methodical as this film is. In every way, this should probably be a very boring film. This is not a flashy film, with exciting action and events happening every second.

The narrative is built like a mystery, a nearly perfect mystery, and the subtlety of it's construction is only possibly overshadowed by the performances, the dialog, the  script and the cinematography. It's shot in black and white, and so beautiful that there could be a few paragraphs worth of hyperbolic language to describe. I could seriously go on for a very long time about the photography in this film. This alone would be reason to see this film. 

Haneke has managed to create a film which is tightly wound and has a more consistent rhythm than a metronome by keeping things as subtle as he does and by using a decidedly uncinematic cast. That's not to say the performances aren't good, because they are, every single one of them is superb, but none of these actors look like they just stepped off a back lot somewhere in Hollywood or spend long hours devoted to the iconography of the physical image that we cultivate in most of our cinema and television. They aren't your classic Hollywood "pretty people," and whether we want to believe that or not, it makes a difference in how far we're willing to go in suspending our disbelief. When people are so attractive, so perfectly coiffed that it's abnormal, and looks like an effect they're attempting to achieve, we know it, and we don't believe it as willingly as we do people who look like they belong in an early twentieth century Austrian farming community. All of those elements come together to give the film a steady, quiet rhythm that keep it from becoming a boring, slow, preachy snoozefest, and make it engaging, suspenseful, interesting, and ultimately, an example of the power of quality, no frills film making. 

There's a cliche it's really easy to get tired of hearing or reading when you're a film enthusiast. Film makers, actors, producers, everyone invovled in film making and just about every single variety of storytelling in general use it. They say, "I was willing to do it to serve the story,""we really didn't want to do anything but serve the story." It's always about "serving the story." It's something said on a near constant basis, even when it couldn't be further from the truth. With The White Ribbon though, it's absolutely the truth. There is nothing in this movie that doesn't somehow serve the story. There's no extraneous bits and pieces or unecessary scenes, characters, dialog, nothing. It's all actuall there to serve the story, and that is what makes this such an incredible film. The story here has some interesting things to say about the nature of punishment and oppressive social, religious and economic conditions, and suggests some even more interesting things about the role those may have ultimately played in the beginnings and future acceptance of fascism. The source of that punishment and oppression is different in this film, but because of it's lack of sensationalistic tone, it's easy to see the through line from a life like the one depicted in the film, and accepting the kind of oppression fascism would eventually bring. 

The White Ribbon is an artistic accomplishment by a master film maker, which should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in film on more than a pure entertainment level. I caught it on Netflix Watch Instantly and it's available on DVD. 

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