Saturday, January 9, 2010
The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke is a brilliant filmmaker. The question is does he think that humans are without merit. Everyone in this movie, especially the children, is abused, humiliated, and mistrusted. After two hours, I grew allergic to the point of view. Yet the suspense and adept storytelling kept me in my seat.
The story begins in doubt with the narrator saying he is not sure if what he remembers is exactly true, but it begins with a vicious prank that lands the small village doctor in the hospital with serious injuries for several months. In his absence, the local midwife who helps him in his office takes care of his two children. The younger child, a boy of around five, asks the older sister about death, and there is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, a frank exchange between children about death. In the beginning of the twentieth century death was more present to children than it is now. The children in the movie are perfectly cast and acted. In fact everyone thanks to the black and white photography looks stark and from a distant time and authentic.
The first act of malice, the injuring of the doctor (and murder of his horse) is quickly followed by another suspicious calamity, the death of a farm hand. That incident leads to another act of cruelty, which leads to more, and pretty soon children are found strung up upside down and beaten with mysterious vaguely religious messages next to them. Can this really be the way the world works?
The hyperrealism of Haneke is what gives his work an edge that I find disturbing. He seems to be showing how no one is above suspicion, that all humans are capable of doing evil to each other.
I acknowledge the mastery of his art, but I resist the notion that humans are innately evil and find his sour world view dispiriting.