The White Ribbon (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The White Ribbon (2009)

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ANDREW LIKEThere is nothing right in the village.  No one can quite shake the ominous air that sprung up once the doctor took a nasty fall.  But it seems as though his fall was planned by someone.  A thin wire was strung up between the two trees where he regularly rode his horse.  Still, how could it have been known that the doctor, and only the doctor, would ride through the path that morning?  It is used commonly enough, so the wire could have been meant for anyone and set by everyone.

With the opening moments, Michael Haneke establishes a mood of suspicion and dread that escalates forever without release.  The White Ribbon is a fine follow up to Cache', and has a terrifying beauty that his other films have not yet matched.

Granted, his films have been a bit of a gamble for me.  Either he is toying with the audience so obviously I can only meet his craft with scorn, or he plays that same suspicious note on such a subtle level that it's impossible to not feel disturbed.  Thankfully, there is little to feel cheated about when I got done watching this film.

There is little in the way of a conventional plot structure in The White Ribbon, just slowly escalating violence and paranoia told from the only decent voice in town.  The schoolteacher will be our guide through the chaos, and he is just as confused about what happened as I was.  He retells the story as an old man, objectively, almost as objectively as Haneke's camera watches.  There are no flourishes in tale or or viewpoint, just a willingness to sit, listen, watch, and pray that someone decides to stop the horror soon.

Most of the characters in The White Ribbon are addressed by their title or their job in the town.  Only the children are named, as they are the one's that will suffer most at the hands of the weaker adults.  Haneke shows the corrupt morality of the church and the government that has been established in the town.  Ultimately, neither is to blame for the acts that are to follow, but neither one of them can profess to any sort of innocence either.  Horrible secrets are kept from everyone, and whispers fill the church hall with accusations and suspicions.

The effect of these moments is profoundly unsettling, almost as much as the events that are eating the town alive.

Because something is clearly devouring this village from the inside out.  Shortly after the doctor falls, a woman dies because of her own tumble through some rotten floorboards.  Then, in one of the only acts with a clear perpetrator, the Baron's cabbage crops are destroyed.  Then a fire starts at a barn in one of the barns on the Baron's property.  Then more accidents.  And so on.  And so on.

The only one's to take any of the blame are the children.  They are slowly establishing their own pecking order and are rooting out the weak one's of the village.  Their behavior is learned from their parents who, lacking other adult targets to blame, beat and molest the young one's in town.  Innocence will suffer more than anything else.

This might seem grotesquely repetitive if not for the way Haneke presents each situation.  Each act of violence and perversion carries with it a cruel justification the more we get to know the village and it's townspeople.  The perpetual guessing game is fascinating as we are given slight clues as to who may have done what and why, but are never told outright.  That would break the paranoia, and provide answers to questions that none of the townspeople want released.  The plotting in The White Ribbon is brilliant in this regard.  Someone might step forward and claim responsibility for just one of the incidents, but that would take down many others with them, giving everyone a reason to continue on and to stay silent.

As all of this goes on Haneke simply watches, utilizing some of the most beautifully stark photography in recent years.  Never has the color white been more oppressive in these environments.  The fire, the lamp, the ribbon - all bearers of misfortune utilizing that dreadful color.  We long for the darkness, as those are the few moments where a period of rest might be obtained.  The entire film utilizes this inversion of light/dark and is never short of absolutely gorgeous shots.

Also commendable is Haneke's use of voice over narration, and brief intrusions of sound.  Silence is the default state for the town, unsurprising given how many secrets need to be kept, but those moments with the schoolteachers voice or musical notes sounded add to the unsettling effect.  The narration recalls a Hans Christian Andersen fable gone horribly wrong (which, given how dark his stories were, is no small feat).  The musical notes that we hear are produced only by the characters, and add to the disturbed fairytale atmosphere of the village.

I can't even find real fault with the ending.  When I first watched it I felt a bit cheated, as if Haneke had put to fine a point on the inexplicable horror that came before it.  Yet, given the setting and the circumstances, as well as the words of a tired old man trying to make sense of his life, it all makes perfect sense.

This is one of the best movies I've seen in recent years.  It's willingness to plunge into hateful territory with a perverted sense of whimsy is quite the gamble.  But it's one that pays off beautifully in that destructively sublime fashion that Haneke has learned to excel at.

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The White Ribbon (2009)

Written and directed by Michael Haneke.

Posted by Andrew

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