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I was very fortunate to see this year's Palme d'Or winner, "The White Ribbon," over the weekend. Directed by Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games), I expected a deeply contemplative and confounding film.
As of this writing, The White Ribbon may be the best film I've seen this year. Telling the story of a small German town ruled by ritualistic guilt and corporeal punishment in the years before WWI, it chronicles the burdens of fascism, the tensions in family, and the transformation of the town's children. When a series of mysterious events - including a doctor being thrown from his horse when the animal trips on a wire strung between two trees, the baron's son being severely beaten, and a mill worker family's matriarch being killed in a work accident - erupt across the town, no one can seem to find the answer. The town's School Teacher heads up his own investigation, and the film offers us glimpses into the lives of the town's Baron, Steward, and Bishop and their complicated and corrupt reign over their respectful families.
Shot in black and white high definition, featuring sparse art direction and muted film editing, magnificent compositions that are alternately almost blankly constructed and intricately complex in their handling of interior deep space, The White Ribbon is a work of aesthetic genius. Haneke encroaches on Bergmanian territory with his chamber-play-like atmosphere. The narrowness of physical space always complements the mental dizziness of the characters, and complex relations are shown in quiet interchanges instead of dramatic screaming matches.
Typical of Haneke, this is a mystery film with no real solution. It is Antonionian in its dissection of society at the removal of a causal plot. The "how" or the "why" of the mysterious events are secondary - the point of the film seems to be that evil - or the potential for evil - is harvested in all of us. Haneke's film stops when WWI breaks out, but it's just as easy to transplant this to a study on the rise of fascism. He knows this. We're watching a society crumble, and the first World War is just the final stake through its heart.
At almost two and a half hours, The White Ribbon crawls at a snail's pace, but it's so damn fascinating it more than compensates. It is emotionally impenetrable and intellectually invigorating. Though he frustrates our demand for answers, Haneke has bigger ideas on his mind. At several points in the film, we are led to believe the town's children are conspiring in some sort of massive revolt against the high order. And why not? Many of them are shown to be physically or sexually abused. They receive stark punishment for simple disobedience. Their religious-centered education borders on insane repression. Of course, we never know what the children did or didn't do, but the trans-generational subtext is cautionary - heed how we address our sons and our daughters, for they will control the country.
And of course, these young children will grow up to fascism and Nazism. Not that these specific children are Hitler or Goebbels, but it's an allegoric parable.
Michael Haneke is cerebral. He's out there. But he's also inside - he's an intense psychological filmmaker whose films and characters are experiments in visual expression. Here, he's harnessed many of the best elements of his previous films while expanding his talent in a brave new artistic direction. Like Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dryer, or Michelangelo Antonioni, his White Ribbon is a mesmerizing aesthetic accomplishment and a powerful indictment of society driven by intense symbolism and intelligent writing. This is the crowning achievement for one of world cinema's most perplexing and demanding contemporary artists. It's a film we should all celebrate.