I liked Austrian director Michael Haneke’s “Caché”/”Hidden” in French, and forgot that he perpetrated the stunningly awful adaptation of Kafka’s “Der Schloss” (The Castle). Last year his “Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” garnered much praise and many prizes. The subtitle was dropped in English, so it’s known in the Anglophone world as just “The White Ribbon.” The subtitle gave greater prominence to the elementary school students, which I think was an interpretive hint in a long movie that explains little despite having extensive voiceover.
The black-and-white film won the Palme d’or (the Golden Palm, the top prize) at Cannes, the Golden Globe for best foreign-language movie and several others and was a heavy favorite to cop an Oscar. For the second year in a row, however, the favorite lost to a movie that had not been released beyond the qualifying week in LA and in Manhattan, this time the Argentine thriller “El secreto de sus ojos” (The Secret in Their Eyes). The previous year, the French “Entre les murs” (The Class) was widely predicted to win, but lost to “Okuribito” (Departures).) Though I am often critical of Academy voters, I think they got the best foreign-language film right in both instances.
The acting in cinematography (Christian Berger, Haneke’s regular cinematographer received an Oscar nomination and a New York Film Critics’ Award for his work that aimed to look like that of Sven Nykivst for Ingmar Bergman movies) are impressive, but I don’t think that “White Ribbon” is a good movie. I think that both “El secreto de sus ojos ” and “Un prophète” (the other nominee that I’ve seen) are much better, though IMHO also too long.
I don’t think that it is possible to spoil the plot, since at the end pretty much the only thing of which the audience is certain is that the Great War (WWI) has begun and will change things even in the dour, Protestant village where some unexplained bad things have been happening.
The movie was shot in Germany (and definitely in German, despite being a French co-production) and has a more northern (Bergman/Nykvist) light than Austrian. I think that the news of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo is registered as it would have been in an Austrian village rather than a German one, but the Protestant minister registered as north of Austria to me.
The pastor, played all-too convincingly by Burghart Klaussner (The Edukators, The Reader), is a domestic tyrant, very much in the Bergman manner. He is a forbidding figure to his six children and to the narrator, the one-room primary school teacher not native to the village played by Christian Friedel. It is the teacher (voiceovers by Ernst Jacobi) who tells the audience far too much of what it is seeing, while failing to reach any conclusions about who is doing the various forms of violence against property and children that occurs offscreen (we do see who savages a cabbage field, but otherwise only the aftereffects).
I am less committed to “Show, don’t tell” than many, but I think that if a film-maker is going to tell what s/he is showing, the redundant narration should have literary merit, as that here does not.
The other local professional, the doctor, grimly portrayed by Rainer Bock (General Schonherr in “Inglourious Basterds”), is an even less sympathetic figure than the pastor. He only has one daughter, but is sexually abusing her. Plus he is gratuitously cruel to the midwife who has long served (and serviced) him. Susanne Lothar would be more at home in a Fellini movie than a Bergman one, and definitely got my sympathy.
The local baron (Ulrich Tukur) owns the forest and a lumber mill, as well as hiring help in farming his lands. He is not a sympathetic character, but treats his children far better than the pastor and the doctor treat theirs. His wife (Ulrich Tukur) is fed up with the maliciousness of the locals and wants to take the children permanently to the Italian coast. This seems like a good idea to me, except that war is about to break out, but the baron is not shown mistreating the baroness.
The teacher has a shy romance with Eva (Leonie Benesch), a lass from another village who loses her job taking care of the twins of the baron when the baroness takes them off to Italy the first time.
A large peasant family also devolves onscreen, beginning with the mother dying in an accident in the sawmill.
OK, there is too much going on, too many mysteries and subplots even for a movie dragging out to 144 minutes. I realize that in real life, many crimes are unsolved, not just unpunished, but in movies, I think that the viewer should have at least enough information doled out to have a viable opinion of whodunit (the it not being murder here). I think that the children tortured the tortured children, but have not even an educated guess of which children or why (especially in the second instance). For a mystery-solver the movie is like trying to solve an equation with half a dozen or more unknown values.
Well, Haneke is after bigger game than concocting a satisfying mystery? When the movie came out in theaters, I remember reading much about “the sources of fascism,” and the mix of authoritarianism and sadism prefiguring or even explaining the Third Reich. I don’t buy that at all! The harshly judgmental and repressive rural German society before WWI in Germany does not seem to me different from the harshly judgmental and repressive rural British society before WWI portrayed by Thomas Hardy (and films such as “Tess” made from them). Nastiness and backbiting are to me (raised in a rural, mostly Protestant town in which anything that anyone did was everybody’s business) features of rural life. And there are sadistic children everywhere, not just in pre-WWI Germany.
I don’t see any surrender of agency by the villagers confronted with unexplained horrors, nothing of what Erich Fromm wrote about as flight from freedom (freedom hardly existing in this village!) I reject it as offering a solution to “the German problem” of Hitler-intoxication and atrocities. The aim seems to be into Wilhelm Reich (sexual repression produces automatons for fascist use) territory, but wanly. “The strange events that occurred in our village . . . may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country,” proclaimed in the opening voice-over is appropriately tentative, but, IMO, is a meretricious excuse for a muted horror movie. (OK, we are not sure of who shot the videos in “Caché” either, but “Ribbon” has a series of atrocities without visible perpetrators and relies entirely on withholding evidence.)
And the Austrian director making intimations about German society being proto-Nazi reminds me of the old saw about the Viennese ability to render Beethoven Austrian and Hitler German. I think if an Austrian wants to link the Old Order and following Hitler, he should begin at home.
The DVD is devoid of bonus features, though there are lengthy ones on the Blue-Ray release, I gather.