12 November 2010

The White Ribbon

Last night, I finally got around to popping in the Netflix disc of The White Ribbon (Der weiße Band: eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009) by Michael Haneke. The film won Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or, the FIPRESCI Grand Prix, and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, among others. The film was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, though the award was instead given to the Argentinian The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, 2009) by Juan Jóse Campanella.

Though I certainly intend to see The Secret in Their Eyes, hopefully before the 83rd Academy Awards. However, given my interest in Germany and some of my previous work on films related to World War II, The White Ribbon was first on my list of "must-sees."

More so than many other films, I think that The White Ribbon is very much about creating an atmosphere. There are certainly discernible characters with their own stories and personalities, but we never really fully see them or understand their true feelings and motives. In some ways, I think this is the entire point of the film, but I will address that a little later. Ostensibly, there is a main character—the nameless schoolteacher who narrates the story. However, although he is present throughout the film, we actually get to know him more through his voice-over narration in which he is considerably older.

Essentially, the film is an incompletely story pieced together from his various memories of his short tenure as teacher in a small German Protestant town called Eichwald. His own story is rather simple, revolving around his courtship of a young woman named Eva. However, throughout it's course, he also recounts numerous strange and violent instances that occurred within the town. For example, the film begins with a recounting of how the village doctor was serious injured when his horse tripped over a thin wire strung between two trees in his garden.

Cold, distant, and oppressive
These words sum up the entire feel of the film pretty well. The cinematography by Christian Berger in particular really adds to this

In one scene, a perhaps more "mundane" act of violence in which two children are caned as punishment for acting out, we do not actually seen the event. The entire scene is shot from the hallway. First, the kids leave their bedroom and walk down a narrow hallway and into a door, closing it behind them. The camera sits in still silence, gazing down the hallway anxiously. The door opens and the son exits, walks to another door and enters briefly, then emerges with the switch that will be used to whip him. He walks back down the hallway and closes the door. More silence. More anticipation. Then, suddenly, but faint and muffled from the distance, we hear a yelp of pain from behind the closed door. One or two more, and the film breaks away to a new scene.

The cameras relative stillness during this scene gives off a sense of emotional detachment that becomes one of the primary focal points of the film. It's all very oppressive and weighs on the viewer throughout the film's two and a half hour span

Another notable element of this scene is that it is cut short. Likewise, when the doctor falls from his horse, we get fragmented images of what is happening rather than one cohesive sequence. Some of the goriest parts are omitted.

The film is in fragments, as if important details have been snipped from the film strips and left on the cutting room floor. For one, a lot of the most "disturbing" elements are left hidden, only described. We never see the doctor's collarbone sticking out of his flesh. We don't see the raw and bleeding flesh of the boy's caned buttocks. Of course, this is certainly saves on special effects costs, but it also adds to the oppressive and distant nature. And also alludes to the fact that the film will never really have a clean resolution. At the very end, though we may have a better idea who is doing these acts of seemingly random violence, we never get a definitive answer. No one is ever brought to justice. And many plotlines remain completely open and unexplained.

Ultimately, I think the point of this film is the idea that we can never really understand violence and why people do it.

The danger
The film is best taken as a look at humanity in general and some of the darker sides of human societal as a whole. This is apparently the director's intent as well, as he said in an interview that the film is about "the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature."

However, I think there could be some danger here in that the film itself is set just before World War I and the narrator comments that he feels the events he will describe are somehow related to or a part of what would happen later. The film also ends with the beginning of the Great War. As such, it may be easy for people to take the stance that the film is not about humanity in general but the German people in particular. This stance would echo the sentiment of Daniel Goldhagen, whose books imply that the Germans were a "demonic people." As I discuss in my essay on Passenger (Pasażerka, 1963), such a stance is counter-productive in an attempt to address and resolve the lasting emotional effects of the Holocaust.

As such, the film is a very interesting narrative. It is one that prompts a lot of thought and emotion, and while generally depressing and dismal in its outlook on humanity, does provide a few cases of hope in the schoolteacher, Eva, and one innocent young boy. However, I would warn against people drawing too narrow a parallel between this film and the Holocaust. Certainly, it can be seen as an attempt to understand why something so horrific could have occurred, but I think it takes a more broad, humanist approach rather than a very specific and focused look at German society, despite being entirely set in Germany shortly before the First World War.

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