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The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009)
Austrian-German film written and directed by Michael Haneke. With Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Christian Fiedel, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar. (2 h 25.)

an imageAfter theorem-shaped movies, Michael Haneke develops an elegant formalism and seems to deliver his opus magnum, awarded a polemical Golden Palm at Cannes. Photography is Christian Berger, Haneke’s brother in arms since Benny’s Video (1992), who explores a black and white world, haunted by a perpetually pallid sky. Crushing.

Bathed in this light, faces are those of German protestant country community at the beginning of the twentieth century, submissive to the many avatars of an inflexible order. Religion, family, social hierarchy, Haneke confirms his passionation with these constraints.

If there’s a hell below… 

More fervent, less deceitful, the pastor, escaped from The Night of the Hunter by Laughton, listens to him-self preaching an edifying dogma. Having ringside seats, his children benefit from his zeal to match actions to the word. After the sermon comes the cudgel. The white ribbon seals the penitence. This strip of cloth, humiliating armband, reminds them of a primordial value, purity.

In a sclerotic, world children bear the brunt of a general repression. Frightening victims, their gaze remains omnipresent when the engine seizes up.

The decline begins with two events. Riding his horse, the doctor is badly injured by a cable out of nowhere. In the state-owned sawmill, the floor collapses taking the life of a country woman. On one hand a crime, on the other an accident, chance and causality are interwoven to produce a series.
Tied up, the offspring of the local nobility get beating. A disabled child receives similar. The granary catches fire. Reprisals against presumed culprits or barbarian symptoms relieved from a society starched by silence and appearances? Neither filming the act nor their perpetrator, Haneke maintains tension through the movie. The baron, displeased with unresolved matters, during the mass exclaims, “if we fail to find out the truth, our community won’t find peace.”

Losey and Visconti are in a village 

Violence and its representation have been constant questionings for Haneke. Rather than answers, he gives priority to suggestions. In darkness or light, the camera films oppressive bourgeois interiors. Birds are encaged and emotions under glass. Desires are knotted as same as the hands at bedtime, of Martin the elder of the pastor.

On several occasions the varnish flakes. The ferocity of two conjugal scenes evokes Bergman. “While sleeping with you, I really tried to imagine another, a young nice-smelling one, less decrepit, but I don’t have enough imagination.” Served by a doctor in peak condition, Rainer Bock (seen in Inglourious Basterds), honesty proves to be incredibly cruel. In order to preserve the cohesion of the structure, lies become indispensable.

According to the German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky, “violence is nothing but the consequence of a culture turned towards transcendence of the being.” Though he illustrates this point, Haneke avoids drawing conclusions. Do the crimes justify themselves by tackling the establishment or oppositely, do they sublimate this establishment by protecting it?

Starting with the figure of the teacher, uncertainty enshrouds the movie. A witness at the time, beset by doubts since rumours and hearsay spread, he remembers the events a few decades later, as a voice-over. In 1913, as a townsman, he was the ideal investigator of this rural tragedy. As a stranger he had been made the link between two silent generations. He was conscripted in 1914.

Haneke ends his compendium on a dreadful prospect. First World War knocks at the door and the spectre of the Second hangs over boys and girls. They are doomed to be the Nazis of tomorrow and their white ribbon might have been the narrow path of a damned innocence: childhood.