Monday, July 05, 2010
Suffer the children (and just about everyone else)
By Edward Copeland
When placed in the hands of a talented director of photography (in this case Christian Berger) and crew, few images fill me with as much wonder as vividly rendered black and white film. When done especially well, the cinematography itself can almost mesmerize me past any weaknesses that the movie contained within may hold, as is the case with Michael Haneke's most recent work, The White Ribbon.
Haneke as a filmmaker certainly is an acquired taste, with most of his films producing a love it-or-hate it reaction from the viewer. From what I've seen of his work so far, I've fallen in the pro-Haneke camp, which probably surprises most readers since I tend to shy away from filmmakers who reek of pretension. Still, I loved The Piano Teacher with its go-for-broke performance by Isabelle Huppert and greatly admired Code Unknown and Cache: Hidden. I even liked his original Funny Games a great deal, until he lessened my taste for it with his lackluster and unneeded scene-for-scene American remake that fell completely flat and somehow retroactively lessened the first film's impact.
The White Ribbon earned the Golden Palm at last year's Cannes Film Festival, best foreign language film at the 2009 Golden Globes and a nomination in the same category at the 2009 Oscars and I think Haneke finally earned so much acclaim last year, in many ways, because The White Ribbon proves to be his most conventional movie.
The simplest label to place upon The White Ribbon is mystery. Set in a German village on the eve of the first world war, Haneke's moody movie details strange events in that village. They seem to start with an apparent trap set for the town's doctor (Rainer Bock) that trips his horse and severely injures the doctor for months. This is followed by an accident that kills a farmer's wife when she tumbles through some rotting floorboards.
Still, these occurrences just serve as appetizers for the film's main, eerie enigma involving the town's children. Is there systematic abuse going on, perhaps at the strict hands of the rich land-owning baron (Ulrich Tukur) or the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), either of whom could be abusing their status as moral authorities?
Then again, perhaps it's the children themselves that may somehow be involved in the evil. The way Haneke films them, with the great aid of Oscar nominee and ASC award winner Berger, you're never certain whether to view the kids with sympathy or to look at them warily as they remind you of Village of the Damned.
Since this is a Michael Haneke film, you shouldn't expect a standard mystery format. Though the main character is a 31-year-old school teacher (Christian Friedel) who narrates the film in voiceover as an old man, at the time he was more concerned with making a young woman his bride. Eventually though, he can't stay out of the peculiar goings-on.
As is usually the case, Haneke loves to play in the fields of ambiguity and that is again what happens here until late in the film news arrives of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, lighting the fire for World War I. The odd goings-on and atrocities slip the villagers' minds and as the collective amnesia washes over the characters, it denies the moviegoer of any concrete resolutions.
If Haneke is attempting to make a case that the events in the village portend the war, he doesn't quite make the sale, especially since it's mentioned so blatantly. Compare that to Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game in 1939. Granted, Renoir's film belongs to a completely different genre than Haneke's, but he also foretold of gathering war clouds in Europe, only for World War II, but he did it without specific mentions and using filmmaking skills, writing and technique alone. It was up to the cognizant viewer to fill in the blanks in Renoir's film and it seems odd given Haneke's previous works that he'd feel the need to hold their hand and lead them here.
Still, The White Ribbon makes for a fascinating film to watch, if only for those beautiful black-and-white images. In addition to the hauntingly lovely visuals and some particularly well-done setpieces, Haneke produces many memorable scenes such as when a child walks in on his father and older sister in what appears to be an incestuous situation, but it's hard to tell since the sister's attitude is so joyous she reflects neither fear nor shame and could be giving the impression of a consensual relationship. Then again, perhaps the girl tells the truth when she says the father was simply re-piercing her ear.
When it comes to making a final ruling on The White Ribbon, I keep coming back to Christian Berger's cinematography. I'm not one who is easily bowled over by style over substance, but I can't remember the last time a film was such a pleasure to watch for its visuals alone — and this was at home on DVD. I can only imagine how remarkable it looked projected on a big screen. In a strange way, it reminded me of the classic Last Year at Marienbad, another hypnotic film that I couldn't remotely try to explain to a layperson on a plot level. The White Ribbon tells a more conventionally coherent story than Alain Resnais' landmark, but it's its imagery that holds it together in much the same way.