Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon)
Boy, I hope that someone else here has seen this one because I really want to talk about it.
This is the new film from Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker responsible for past provocations like Funny Games, Caché, and The Piano Teacher. It won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes film festival and is as confounding a piece of filmmaking as you're likely to encounter this year. Haneke's usual themes are about how human beings' basic nature is to be cruel to one another and this film is no exception. It takes place in a rural German town in the year before the first World War broke out and the story chronicles several unspeakable and seemingly random crimes committed by parties both known and unknown. It begins with the town doctor being injured while horseback riding when someone stretches a tripwire between two trees, causing him to fall. Who could have done such a thing? Over the rest of the film, we get to know the residents of the superficially idyllic town. More atrocities occur, and suspicion begins to breed among the townsfolk. It's no great spoiler that the film ends with the people in the town learning of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand... and that's pretty much it. The central mystery is never really solved. Some of the characters have their suspicions, which other characters vehemently try to disprove. Haneke is not really concerned with the solution to the mystery, but rather with meditation on malice, violence, hypocrisy, and how a culture can imperceptibly but dangerously shift. Many of the early scenes seem to suggest that the patriarchal nature of German society around the turn of the 20th century contributed to the conditions that allow the film's events to happen. We see several of the town's fathers-- the landowner Baron, the doctor, the minister-- behaving arrogantly and cruelly to the women and children. But Haneke is no believer in the innocence of youth, either, and a sense of dread and unease about the children begins to dominate the film by its end. Some simple mathematics should tell the viewer what these children, coming of age in Germany in 1914, would move on to as adults.
The film, entirely in black-and-white, is visually very effective. And Haneke is a master at building suspense and dread, especially in several sequences where we wait for inevitable punishments to be meted out. That said, I'm honestly not sure how I felt about it. This is one to digest for a few days and ponder.
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