Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

The White Ribbon rattles our beliefs

By - Feb 18th, 2010 10:44 am
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee
Scene from The White Ribbon

Scene from The White Ribbon

At the very beginning of The White Ribbon, over a black screen, the narrator’s voice tells us that he isn’t sure that what we are about to see is entirely true. He acknowledges that it is a particular point of view and that memory can sometimes be deceptive and certainly selective. This disclaimer seems to neatly sidestep any responsibility for what follows and is the first painfully human act in what proves to be a frightening human parable.

We are then immediately plunged into the kind of blank stare realism that Austrian director Michael Haneke has developed to a high art. Haneke’s immaculate staging and cinematographer Christian Berger’s starkly simple compositions, drained of color to the point of appearing black and white and lit seemingly by nature itself, leave us to focus only on the people living within the frames.

In short, the story is about the children and teenagers of a choir run by a schoolteacher in a Protestant northern Germany village in the early 1900s.

Village scene from The White Ribbon.

Village scene from The White Ribbon.

Those people, who appear at first to be victims of a series of irrational and significantly cruel crimes, are slowly revealed to be, if not directly complicit in those crimes, certainly deserving of some degree of retribution for their abhorrent behavior toward each other and particularly toward their children.  And whereas the mystery of who is committing these crimes is never solved (as would be typical in a Hollywood film), by the end we suspect that the children — innocent, blond, playful and curious — may be the culprits. We blame them, and we fear them. But not like the Children of the Corn fantasy children, but like our own, because we made them.

The point has been made that since The White Ribbon takes place in Germany, on the eve of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of WWI, the children are of the generation that will grow up to embrace Hitler and allow for the murder of millions of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. We are right to fear them. Perhaps, we should fear them now.

Several critics have stated that Haneke is a sadist. That is rather harsh to my way of thinking and a label stuck on another person more out of fear than of personal knowledge. Haneke’s films are all very disturbing. They make you uncomfortable. They set people and images of behavior in front of you that you would prefer to turn away from or not to know anything about. It is my belief that we want to turn away because we recognize the truth of these behaviors, and we recognize, if not our selves, our potential selves. It is also my belief that we are obligated by our humanity to bear witness and to report what we see, whether it be a gentle breeze blowing across a field of grain in the early evening light or the body of a child, naked, tortured and molested that lies within that field.

Haneke’s The White Ribbon — winner of three awards at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival — is a great film because it stares with uncompromising and impassive eyes at a world that is filled with tiny horrors that, ignored, are about to become catastrophic.

The White Ribbon opens Friday, Feb. 26, at the Oriental Theatre.

Categories: Movies

0 thoughts on “Moving Pictures: The White Ribbon rattles our beliefs”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Mark, for a piece that gets at Haneke and captures his style in words. — Tom Strini

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us