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Punish yourself with The White Ribbon

Posted by Andrés / October 18, 2009


Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon was the first and only film I had the occasion to watch at this year's Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC) - and I'm glad. Having done the whole three to four movies a day thing - had I ended my run on this last day with this torturously long and multilayered film, I too may have madly taken a scythe to a cabbage field. Luckily for me, my attention span was unblemished by previous celluloid and I was able to become mesmerized by this incredibly dense historical period piece.

I have a confession to make: had I not been filled with sugar-coated cereal and a pumpkin spice latte just minutes before this screening, I may have have spent the two-and-a-half hours bench-pressing my eyelids. When it comes to local theatres in the next few weeks, I recommend you come prepared. Haneke's latest is is filled with moments that are devoid of dramatic fallacies. When a local doctor is launched off his horse by an invisible thread knowingly placed in his path, or when increasingly more heinous crimes occur, they are constructed in a highly detached manner, without foreshadowed music, close-ups of gasping faces or revelatory moments. They occur plainly, as they would in real life.

This is strange for a Haneke film, since previous efforts such as Funny Games and Hidden (Caché) trained me to expect some jaw-dropping or shocking sequences. Instead, The White Ribbon shows the director at his most contemplative.

The film is set just before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of World War I. In a Germanic rural community, sporadic violent acts affect the various levels of citizen, from the poor farmer to schoolteacher to the rich Baron and his wife who oversee the town's operation. The originator of these acts is unknown; neither should they be interpreted as the main draw of the film. In many ways, these violent acts are a kind of MacGuffin - they serve their purpose to draw our attention into the actions and reactions of the multiple characters in the town.


While I would love to delve into the various themes and stories of The White Ribbon, I'll focus on the title. In the film, two of the children are forced to wear white ribbons - they are told by the pastor that white is the colour of innocence, and the ribbons are to remind them of their transgressions. In a way, I think of the period before WWI as a kind of white ribbon - a period of rural innocence unmarred by the coming horrors of trench warfare. Of course, this is false. All the transgressions we know today existed back then - only hidden. There is a scene of corporal punishment inflicted on the children behind closed doors. We cannot see it, but we know it is happening. Throughout, it is the demure and haunting children that are punished, when the adults perpetrate the very crimes they condemn in secret.

The White Ribbon reveals a moment in early 20th century history rarely scene on film. It is a German period piece stripped from the usual post 1940s horrors; nor do I think we should insult Haneke by stating he is "hinting that these [the children in the film] are the future architects of the Third Reich" (source). As if Germans had no other history to tell! Instead, it is a rural story about more intimate wrongdoings, and about learned abuse and punishment that may speak to anywhere in the world. The film manages to shock without spectacle, and has the audacity to tell us that life goes on.

Check the local listings (especially AMC and Cinema du Parc) in the coming weeks. The film's wide-release premiere is imminent. In the meantime, watch the trailer.

Thanks to Michael-Oliver Harding for the press ticket.



Daviel Lazure Vieira / October 19, 2009 at 09:39 am
It's a pretty good review of Haneke's White Ribbon. I love the way this filmmaker raises questions without giving viewers one single way of seeing and interpreting the actions of his films. And you're right, it's not just about the early days of the Third Reich, it's about any kind of physical and psychological torture - and what ensues for victims. The film is indeed slow pace, but I think it's probably why it's so powerful; it reminded me of the best movies made by Bergman and Tarkovsky.
Manon / November 18, 2009 at 03:09 pm
Un champ de choux? C'est quoi ça dans la première photo? Oh yeah White Ribbon looks good!
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