Review: The White Ribbon 9/10
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"The Village of the People Damned By Protestantism and Bad Sex Touches"
Austrian director Michael Haneke's icily beautiful The White Ribbon is a film very close to the perfection of a certain cinematic type. It lingers, it unfolds slowly and resolutely and unfolds further still when you start to try and unpack it after the fact - the film gets better in retrospect. Set in a small Protestant village in northern Germany in 1913, the film's various narrative threads interweave elegantly, obscurely, dreadfully until eventually, the bottom drops out underneath them all.
The film is narrated by a school teacher (Ernst Jacobi as the elder, Christian Friedel as the younger) reflecting on the time he spent as a youth in the village of Eichwald. Picturesque and seemingly idyllic, the village is shaken when the town's doctor is thrown from his horse after riding into a wire strung across his path by dun dun dunnnn... persons unknown. Is it the weird group of extremely polite creepazoid kids? Is it the humiliated midwife? The resentful libertine Baroness? As the schoolteacher attempts to woo a young nanny working for the Baron, a series of strange events unfold, small mysteries playing out: a barn is burnt, the son of the Baron is kidnapped and abused, the Pastor's bird is killed, the handicapped son of the midwife goes missing. The mysteries pile on top of each other, each small and unexplained, dour omens. The schoolteacher is witness and participant, observing without knowing a revelation of the dark, anxious and cruel character of the village.
While Haneke and the cinematographer and frequent collaborator Christian Berger do an astounding job of very very slowly ratcheting up the tension in the film, it eventually becomes clear that they're not particularly interested in the MacGuffin details of any of the small, petty cruelties the film documents. Instead, it becomes cruelly clear that the film, as Haneke himself has said, is about the origins of terror, a story about the lashings-out of a town in the repressive grip of the state, the church and above all else a moral code mandating repression, self-control and the keeping-up of appearances. Haneke's film with its worm-holes of petty violence, cruelly and sexual abuse mining their way through a very crisp, fastidiously maintained façade of order and control is his own architecturally constructed, logically designed statement on the specific human flaws that led a generation later to the rise of Nazism.
Haneke's film is the rarest of things, a bit of very clever sleight of hand that doesn't leave its audience resentful or surly at having been misled, as the point of the film, its sub-textual ending-place is much much more interesting and a much better bargain than the film seems to be offering for the vast part of its textual bulk. This is something that Haneke does (but not always well - in his English-language film Funny Games he tries a similar trick and in that film it's incredibly irritating) and when it works, like it does in The White Ribbon or in his previous film Caché, we're given works that are the literal antithesis of so much disposable generic fare, one that offers unexpected insights and rewards careful attention, and offer more the deeper into them one digs.
Thankfully, Haneke is a skilled enough craftsman that his film doesn't wait until its conclusion to offer up its rewards. It's not a lecture, or a lesson, it's anything but hard to sit through. It's arrestingly beautiful, shot originally in colour and desaturated in post, classically composed and beautifully lit. The performances match the script - minimal, ascetic and austere - and from this very careful control the film spins out slowly a very real, insidious, creeping dread and human anxiety, a Hitchcockian unease and suspense. It's smart without pretense, complex without disappearing into itself, slowly paced without boring. It's masterful, a dark pleasure to watch and even more so to unpack in the hours and days after seeing it, and if it's not the best film of the year, it's very very close. 9/10