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Film Review

The White Ribbon

Why does Northern Europe seem to produce such severe forms of Protestantism, often extreme, even for Calvinism? Is it the long winter nights, the cold, a sense of personal isolation, or what? It seems no coincidence that Ingmar Bergman, Lars Von Trier, the Dardennes brothers, and now Michael Haneke, a German filmmaker (The Piano Teacher, Cache, etc), have often given us films that show the darker, bleaker aspects of human relationships, films that would seem out of place in any other setting. Can you imagine a Bergman film set in Italy?

In The White Ribbon, Haneke takes us to a lovely small farming village in Northern Germany, in 1913, on the eve of a war that would end an age and sweep away a generation of men. The narrator, an old man now, once a young teacher in the village, begins to narrate: "I'm not sure if the story I am about to tell you is entirely true. I can remember it only dimly. I know a lot of the events only through hearsay." He also says that he "is telling this story because of certain things that happened in our country", which seems like a clear reference to Hitler's ascent exactly 20 years later. The town's doctor, riding home on his horse, is tripped by a deliberately placed wire. The doctor is seriously injured, his horse dies, and everyone is shocked and baffled. The scene shifts to the village pastor's house, where he is punishing his children by sending them to bed without supper. He is rigid, severe and withholding, while his wife looks on but powerless to intervene. Apparently incapable of expressing his love, his children clearly fear his disapproval. The pastor's character is perfectly illustrated when one of his young sons timidly comes into his office with a wounded baby bird, begging his father to let him keep it.

Other figures come into view: the steward, who beats his children, the injured doctor, who humiliates a woman whom he has been having an affair with, and whom we see later is guilty of even worse evil; the Baron, who dominates the town and is cruel and uncaring toward his wife. Only the young school teacher, who has fallen in love with the Baron's nanny, seems to be compassionate and capable of loving. This is a highly patriarchal society, often cruel, incapable of expressing love, and intent on dominating the wives, lovers, and children. This harsh and often abusive parenting have left their mark on the children, which becomes clearer as this complex film progresses.

The White Ribbon is a work of great beauty, whose beauty hides the repression, harshness, and guilt that seem to warp all but the school teacher. The film is shot entirely in black and white, with many memorably gorgeous scenes. The peasants harvesting wheat with scyths look like they have just stepped out of a 16th century Dutch painting. The shots of the village in winter, with the tall stone tower of the church, are breathtaking. But inside is a dark world. The violence is never explicit, always off camera, but with more impact than if shown. The White Ribbon is not a short film (144 minutes) but it is powerful, compelling, and provocative (in the best sense), with a majestic pace, filled with tension. It is disturbing and sad, but a great film, and probably Haneke's best. This is film making by a master. I loved the film, and it will easily make my ten best list this year. Given the fine cinematography, see this in the theater. At the Embarcadero.

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