Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: "The White Ribbon"

"The White Ribbon" is a curious movie that is not about what it would seem to be about.

On the surface, it's mystery set in a tiny German town just before the outbreak of World War I, where all sorts of strange and increasingly vile attacks are directed at the inhabitants, presumably perpetrated by their neighbors. The incidents do not seem to be random outbursts of passion, but calculated acts of punishment.

This film, which won the top prize at Cannes and is an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, is an allegory inside a metaphor trapped in a parable. It increasingly becomes evident that it's a self-critique of German society, and how it allowed the rise of the Nazism.

But like poetry authored by an adolescent, the movie seems to rejoice in preventing its audience from fully grasping its hidden meaning. It delights in its own opaqueness.

This is what leads me to believe the film must be grasping at some higher meaning. If the movie merely operated at the level of its outward appearance, then it would all just be one big exercise in misdirection.

Shot in luscious black-and-white by writer/director Michael Hanecke -- who helmed the similarly convoluted French thriller "Caché" -- "Ribbon" is set in a pastoral town. Stubbornly agrarian and religious, things have gone on in the town more or less the same for centuries. The baron owns the farmland and employs half the residents, and the church keeps everyone strictly in line.

The most obvious characteristic of this mini-society is its extreme patriarchal nature. Every family is ruled over by the father like his own mini-barony, each man in turn knuckling under to the next fellow up in the hierarchy.

The young schoolteacher (Christian Friedal) serves as narrator, though he's telling his tale decades later with no apparent insight or agenda.

Events begin with the doctor (Rainer Bock) being tripped off his horse and severely injured by a wire strung through his garden. Next the baron's young son is kidnapped and whipped. Incensed, the baron demands answers, while the baroness decamps with the children to Italy.

The children of the village are disquietingly omnipresent -- poking their heads into windows, listening in on conversations, asking after the state of those who've been injured. The leaders seem to be Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the oldest children of the stern pastor (Burghart Klaußner).

For a minor offense, the pastor ties white ribbons to his eldest to remind them to be good. By today's standards we would call him a domineering parent, but by the town's standards he's about average. Late in the movie, the doctor returns to show us what the low end looks like.

This dynamic goes on and on, with the violence growing worse and the identity of the perpetrators more clear. The retarded son of the midwife (Susanne Lothar), who is also the doctor's mistress, is attacked and nearly blinded. The doctor suddenly rejects the midwife's affections, in a scene of unimaginable and bewildering cruelty.

Knowing little about German guilt, I can only take a stab at the film's deeper themes. Something about how blind devotion to fathers (read: Fatherland) leads to an unthinking, timid society with the dry rot of depravity hidden underneath the tidy exterior.

What I do know is that "The White Ribbon" is more interested in disturbing its audience than enlightening them.

2.5 stars

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