…and the quest to see everything

Reductive Reviews: White Ribbon

ph. SPC/Magnolia

Spoilers ahead.

Six million Jews had to die because a father sexually violated his own daughter? Because a twelve-year-old son of a preacher man had his hands tied to his bedpost for masturbating? Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” and his divisive worldview is putting me on the fence. (The Blu Ray and DVD of this movie just came out. Omar Moore came out with his review, it will be only a matter of time when Nathaniel Rogers’s DVD review will be out. I hope what I say will just be as good as theirs)

An old man (Ernst Jacobi) narrates the story of a small German town where he used to teach. His rendition of the story, in unproven fragments, might ‘clarify some things that happened in this country.’ I might as well put the bit of historical context that I know that may give to this review. Since the movie brings up national metaphor, the movie, therefore, can’t just stand for itself now.

Germany isn’t a small town. I’m reading Steven Bach’s biography of Leni Riefenstahl, and he paints Germany as this nation of pluralism and there’s an impression that it’s been like that ten years before the time frame of the  movie. The country’s a literate, Protestant nation, so anyone had access to any information and opinion in the spectrum. It would possibly be more conservative in the rural areas, but they couldn’t have had a bigger influence on urban politics. What ‘happened in this country,’ in my understanding, was that somebody eliminated diversity and unified the national voice. I feel as if Michael Haneke’s film doesn’t really allow for this difference and therefore misses the bigger picture. If you don’t agree with me on that, at least agree with me that dictatorships don’t all happen because of a country’s citizens. The movie certainly gives that notion that everyone willingly lets someone pull their strings that makes them do horrific crimes.

Besides, Western critics and audiences overuse ‘film as national metaphor’ as the measuring stick in watching foreign films that it’s a bit infuriating that Haneke will actually take that bait and make a movie for that purpose.

However, I can’t say that Haneke’s worldview is totally wrong. No matter what you think of it, he makes his argument as effective in first screening. Individuals have awful pasts, and the contemporary understanding of what’s ‘good’ is to not let past injuries affect us and be nice to other people. Besides, a criminal gets more derision as he reveals either say, a bad upbringing or racial persecution. However, ironically, we’re human.

Cruelty is a virus, in the words of David Edelstein, and its effects can manifest in different ways. First, that the victim will treat their parents’ cruelty as a badge of discipline, proudly handed down like an heirloom. I get the ‘you kids get it easy’ thing, those adults dissociate themselves with the abuse they received. We see that in the movie too, with the typical ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ punishments.

The second possibility is that some of the younger characters might forget about what’s been down to them and will do acts of cruelty without knowing its source. The children don’t know what they’re capable of and they’re bettering their parents in the worst way possible. This period piece shows the horrific and hints at its effect. “Code Inconnu,” set in contemporary Europe, shows the same soupcons of cruelty inflicted from one person to the other. “Funny Games” and “Cache” prove how terrible acts are already being performed in the contemporary era. But if the children 1910’s Germany would bring what they brought decades later, who knows what our generation is capable of?

Lastly, why is the teacher as a young man (Christian Friedel) not in on what’s going on?

I’m probably one of the few people who likes the pacing and narrative arc of the film. Plot point, another plot point, then nothing happens, then another plot point. Coming into the film I was expecting a big denouement but Haneke didn’t give that to his audience. It’s the same thing with history. We, I believe, try to shape a series of events into narrative. The books teach us of a big war and the peace that’s supposed to come after. However, events in any given time are just as horrific, climactic or anticlimactic as the next. Look at the 1970’s, 9/11, G20. In a time of gimmicky endings, the most shocking and refreshing ending is revealing that the movie is simply a documentation of certain events that happen to a person or group. The best narrative arc is no arc.

The acting in the film is marvelous. When the doctor confronts Frau Wagner (Sussana Lothar), she fights back. Any other actress would have said her speech with a tinge of meanness, or would even bellow it out. Haneke’s always been a man of simplicity and lets the actions and words out as fast as it needs to. Lothar, in her performance, tells the truth. The Academy isn’t creative enough to give her an Oscar nomination. If there’s gonna be that abortion of a remake for “Wizard of Oz,” Lothar is a dead-on lookalike of Margaret Hamilton and she should play the Wicked Witch of the West.

Of course, is the cinematography. Roger Ebert suggested that colour would have ruined the movie. I disagreed at first, but then the titular white ribbons wouldn’t have been as menacing. And B-roll has never been so beautiful.

Lastly, I see the same anemic Christmas tree in every German movie I’ve seen (“I Shot My Love“). I don’t know if it’s my decadent superstitious hypocritical Spanish Catholicism is creating this culture clash, but next time, pick a leafy tree. You Germans gotta stop punishing yourselves, that’s the problem all along.

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