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Friday, 20 November 2009

Film – The White Ribbon – directed by Michael Haneke

Star rating – 5/10

This disturbing and controversial film is set in a rural German village on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War, although we are not told of the exact period until much later on in the film, and it proves to be very significant. This is the first Michael Haneke film that I have seen, and I have to say that even though he builds the tale well, shot in eerie black and white and slowly building up the patchwork of characters and their lives, it was for me a very unsatisfactory piece. As the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year – that is clearly very much a matter of taste. But more of that later.

The film takes us along the lives of the villagers, from the Baron who dominates proceedings like a feudal lord, to the schoolteacher, the local farm labourers, and the pastor. The story really starts to reveal itself with the doctor, and the nasty accident he meets with by colliding with a trip wire seemingly put there expressly to harm him, whilst riding home on his horse. More nasty accidents, and some not quite so accidental incidents, follow. Haneke does not lead the audience to the culprits very directly, indeed he doesn’t seem to lead them to them at all. He prefers to let the characters act as a living parable for their times.

Most of the characters in the drama, with a few honourable exceptions such as the school teacher who acts as the narrator, are truly horrible. The doctor, who has been having an affair with the local midwife since the death of his wife, must give what is the most cruel and brutal speech I have ever heard to finish a relationship. He tells her in a flat, unemotional way that she disgusts him, that she is flabby, has bad breath, that he tries to pretend he is making love to other women when he is with her but that he just can’t do it any more, and that their liaison is over.

But it is the menacing nature of many of the children that is the real shocking element here. Their guilt in the horrendous acts of violence is never spelt out exactly, but it is heavily hinted at in different ways by Haneke. They are obviously being painted as the generation that will grow up to be the followers of Hitler. One notable exception is the little boy who tries to console his father, the pastor, by giving him his little caged bird.

The problem for me with the film is that it is a bundle of loose ends. The crimes are never cleared up. People disappear with no explanation, or in confusing ways. The audience is left having to try to work it all out for themselves. That approach may work for some, and my two companion film goers thought that was just fine, brilliant even. But I like things my films with a little more clarity. And I like to know the point of the film. I certainly didn’t get the point of this one. I thought it was overlong at 145 minutes and I was left wondering exactly what the purpose of watching it had been.

1 comment:

  1. Right... I loved this film. It was one of the best movies I have seen. Ever. It is a film of beauty, one in which the viewer is asked questions, asked to take part of and think about what they see, not just passively consume...

    For me, this is not a 'whodunnit'... As such, the flaws and gaps Julia speaks of simply do not matter. One does not need to know what happended, who did what, etc.,. It is an allegory, a tale which seeks - as a German film, by a Germanic (Austrian) film maker - to explore the moral and psychical background to what Eric Hobsbawm called the Short Twentieth Century. How did the world bring itself to the point of destruction...? It is a tale that seeks to show how the world came to be quite as fucked as it is. Each family and relationship has a symbolic meaning that, as a drunken eejit, I cannot attempt to describe here. Though I can if it is necessary. However, I must mention two things. First: the film is unrelentingly bleak, and yet there is a future of hope, represented by the Pastor's son - his offering of the bird is not only beautiful, it represents the failure of civilised society to live by its own rules. The pastor tells the child he must let the bird go, and yet... when offered it, he takes it. The pastor expects the boy to live by morals he himself cannot abide with... The second symbol is that of the Midwife. She is the key to the film. She is weak, allows herself to be abused by The Doctor. Her child is deformed. Is this not the perfect symbolism for the conflict between the West and Germany after WWI...? She is weak, refuses to protect her child - thr German people - from the offense of the (brutal, horrid) west. She abandons her (disabled) chld... She is the key to the film. Where the child goes simply does not matter. The fact she - the Mother of the village - simply leaves, means that we have abandoned our own futures.........

    This is, by the way, my very drunken thoughts. I am, however, right. Iyt's a mint film xxxxxxxxxxxxx