The White Ribbon (2009) dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Praxouf, Leonie Benesch, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur
By Alan Bacchus
Fuck you too Michael Haneke. There you go. You insult me I insult back. Your concerted effort not to pay off the drama and mystery you teased me with for two hours and twenty minutes felt like a slap in the face and is thus deserving of this long distance insult and this 2 1/2 star review.
It'll be of no consequence though as the film has already been lauded for almost a year from Cannes, to Toronto, to the Golden Globes and very soon, the Oscars. Is it too greedy to want more from this story? More people like me should be throwing popcorn at the screen demanding their money back, or at the very least asking management if there's another reel in the back which didn't get projected. For those who don't ejaculate from Haneke's arty, obtuse and rather sudden ending will likely be left with this feeling.
It's frustrating because for two hours and twenty minutes Michael Haneke is on fire, mesmerizing us with a small scale yet rich, muted horror film, shot with stunning and Black and White compositions. It's Germany circa 1913-4 a quaint little one horse town with an Agatha Christie-like cast of characters, the baron, the doctor, the farmer, the midwife, the teacher, the pastor, their wives and their children. It’s an orthodox village, a culture of tradition and obedience, a hierachal class system which dictates the rules of authority. At the top of each household is the man, who in each home rules with absolute power, unspoken, unquestioned. In many ways the set up felt a lot like Lars Von Trier’s sound stage village in Dogville – except with real buildings as opposed to white lines on the floor.
Haneke starts off by telling us of an accident involving the doctor falling off his horse, sending him to the hospital. But it’s no innocent accident however, but a trap set with fishing wire, by some unknown assailant. Who would want to harm the doctor?
With patience and skill Haneke strips back the veils of secrecy revealing other despicable acts of malevolence within each of the homes. As we discover the cause of each of the acts, the assumed rights of man of the women and children in their lives, whether its corporal punishment with a stick, or heinous sexual assault on a child, or as small as being overbearing and dispassionate, the children of the village take their revenge.
Sounds exciting, doesn't it? A village of the damned, Michael Haneke style. Though most of everything takes place off camera, behind closed doors, in the darkness, or simply off told to us by the narrator, Haneke's ratchets up the tension to high levels of discomfort. The violence which simmers clandestinely underneath the idyllic but isolated setting evokes the same moodiness and sense of dread of a Grimm’s Fairytale. Keeping us moving forward are the words of the narrator in the future, and the actions of the teacher in the present trying to make sense of it all.
Though never characterized as a Sherlock Holmes or even a Hardy Boy, by framing the film around the teacher a revelation is implied to be seen through the eyes of that character. In the final moments, we appear to get that moment, when the midwife claims to know who has been committing these acts. It’s a red herring perhaps meant to disguise an even more despicable act, which Haneke never really pays off, only implies.
So just at the moment when the film has my utmost attention, sitting on the edge of my proverbial seat, waiting to know what comes next, practically salivating at the cinematic tension, Haneke slowly fades out on nothing. Agony!
This is not my first Michael Haneke film, so maybe I should expected the unexpected. The unexpected being, to be left hanging at the moment of greatest interest and attachment to the story. Though I didn’t much care for Dogville, at least Von Trier was conscious enough of his audience to pay off his setups with a cathartic blood bath execution at the end. Unfortunately the biggest moment of violence is his painful fade out, like a dagger in my heart.
It's a shame I'm forced to concentrate so much on the final moments of the lengthy, complex and rich film. Because all the praise that has been heaped on this film is actually well deserved. Haneke masterfully aims his microscopic look at this small village with a spectre of a century of future atrocities which will likely befall these people even more. Perhaps the most profound moment is when the father of the teacher's pined-after girlfriend tells him to wait a year before asking her hand in marriage. It's only a year, 'not much can happen in a year' - a great propetically ironic line. And so my extreme reaction to the very end is a testament to the power of the director to dictate the emotion of the audience, even up till the last frame.