Review: The White Ribbon is grim but gorgeous

Review: The White Ribbon is grim but gorgeous

Source: AssociatedPress

By: David Germain

Critic's Rating: 3/5

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Movie Title

Review: The White Ribbon is grim but gorgeous


Michael Haneke

Star Cast

Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi

As they did during the Depression and World War II, movie audiences today have found a respite from hard times with light, fanciful tales that help them forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon isn't one of those films.

It is a masterpiece, but a demanding one as Haneke immerses viewers, making squeamish voyeurs of them as they watch a small German town come unhinged amid unexplained violence and tragedy as World War I approaches.

The Austrian writer-director has crafted a gorgeously gloomy parable exploring the origins of hatred, malice and communal barbarity, the sort of madness of the masses that would explode in Germany a generation later.

Dour and disturbing characterize Haneke's films, including The Piano Teacher, Hidden, Time of the Wolf and Funny Games, which he remade in an English-language version with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth two years ago.

The White Ribbon is grim even by Haneke's standards, a meticulously composed production whose exquisite black-and-white images by cinematographer Christian Berger help create the illusion of a window in time looking back to the early 20th century.

Winner of the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at last May's Cannes Film Festival, The White Ribbon moves with stately melancholy as the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel as an in-the-flesh young man, Ernst Jacobi providing his voice-over narration as an old man) recalls the strange happenings that begin in summer 1913.

Some evildoer sets a wire that trips the horse of the town doctor (Rainer Bock), who is gravely injured. A farmer's wife mysteriously falls to her death. A cabbage field is ravaged, a building is torched, children vanish and are found bound, beaten or mutilated.

While the townsfolk fret over these crimes and misdemeanors, they continue living lives that emphasize cruelty over compassion.

The one light of hope is the pure and taintless love that grows between the teacher and a young nanny (Leonie Benesch).

The faces of the townsfolk are striking, particularly the children's. Haneke's casting crew met with about 7,000 children, choosing faces that look as though they could be staring out of grainy photos from the era.

The adults in the town are nameless, Haneke identifying them only by their trade or position: the Baron and Baroness (Ulrich Tukur and Ursina Lardi), the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner), the Midwife (Susanne Lothar) and the Farmer (Branko Samarovski).

Only the young daughters and sons have names, children reared in severe, even tyrannical devotion to puritan preaching that their lustful, abusive parents fail to follow; children who will emerge from this incubator of malevolence as the generation unleashing the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

These children already may have put that inhumanity into practice. The film hints that the young ones could be responsible for the town's terrible misdeeds, though Haneke never says for sure as he's not the sort of storyteller to make things easy on his audience by spelling out who's to blame.

Our own times are tough, and The White Ribbon is anything but slaphappy Hollywood escapism. It's an eminently worthwhile journey if you're up for the challenge, though.

And hey, a story this solemn, this depressing just might remind you that no matter how hard things are now, it could be worse.

The White Ribbon, a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.

Running time: 144 minutes

Rating: Four stars out of four

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