The White Ribbon (2009)

Be warned. Michael Haneke wants to hurt you.

At his best, the director does his damage with the light, graceful touch of a seasoned psychopath, the kind that kills and kills and never gets caught. In The Piano Teacher (2002), for instance, easily his best movie, Haneke barely seems to lift a finger. But he doesn’t need to; the white hot hurt gushes from Isabelle Huppert’s every clench. In Cache (2005), his scalpel carves blood from even the most innocuous objects and situations. For the duration of the movie, a found VHS tape, containing nothing more alarming than continuous footage of a single house, becomes the most sinister object imaginable. In these films, Haneke at his best, the evil is always there, but you’ll never see it coming.

At his worst, Haneke resembles Lars von Trier at his worst. Taken together, they can be the Bonnie and Clyde of world cinema, except not nearly as pretty as Warren and Faye and of course a lot less fun. Accent on a lot less fun.

With Quentin Tarantino out there, sometimes it’s easy to forget that killing people is really a mean business, and not just for the dead. Surviving, it turns out, is rather painful too, and, as Haneke portrays it in The White Ribbon, unendingly so. Parents are cruel to children and children are cruel to birds and onward down the list like a kind of gruesome Rube Goldberg machine of mean Germans. Is it any surprise then that the children of these people will become Nazis?

No. But that’s the point. As they layer, the bucolic crimes and criminals that make up The White Ribbon gain in political significance, until Haneke (at his best), without uttering a single pedantic word, is able to offer up a way of comprehending the incomprehensible tragedies that lay ahead. It’s what makes the film so fascinating. But is anyone surprised?

From shot one, we know we’re going down hard. After shot one hundred and one, we still know it. So why should it take so long to get there? By the time I started asking myself this question, I knew I was in von Trier country, and then I had that vision of Haneke and von Trier as Warren and Faye and that was the end of that.

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5 responses to “The White Ribbon (2009)

  1. Really interesting review. Check out my thoughts on White Ribbon on http://pablochiste.wordpress.com/2009/12/27/black-and-white/

  2. Wondering if you saw Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST? I have yet to suffer through it.

    Now that you mention it, THE WHITE RIBBON is somewhat akin to Von Trier’s DOGVILLE thematically.

    Here’s my review:

    http://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/village-of-the-damned/

    • Actually, I never got to see Antichrist. Despite the reviews, I really wanted to. So much of what I heard so was strange, and so (apparently) offensive, I thought it would be worthwhile just to have a look. Looking over my review again, I see I was harder on von Trier than I’d like to be. The guy can be terrific, and in fact, most of the time he is. Checking out your review now…

  3. i cant get over the faces of the children. who are these children? the cinematography was stunning. id rather have my teeth pulled. the last straw was when the kinder with down syndrome was hurt. one hour and 54 minutes, with less than 24 minutes to go, i bailed. what a statement about men. (this is not a feminist point of view). of course she killed the birdie. i felt like the bird while feeling bad for the scissors. the landmark theatre was kind and gave me a free pass for another time. i didnt ask. they offered. the usherman behind the concierge desk suggested a comedy next time.

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