Thursday, May. 14, 2009

The White Ribbon: Poisonous Seeds of Hitler's Germany

In a north German village full of righteous adults and gravely beautiful children, strange things are happening. A wire stretched low between gate posts trips a horse and injures its rider, the local doctor. On a baron's estate, the wife of a tenant farmer falls to her death through weak floorboards in a mill. In retribution, the baron's cabbage crop is destroyed and his son Sigi is found hanging upside down in the mill, his buttocks streaked with whip marks. Karli, the retarded son of the doctor's midwife, is assaulted in the woods and left to die. On the desk of the local pastor someone leaves a dead bird, scissors rammed through its small body.

The year is 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, and two short decades before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Michael Haneke, the Austrian writer-director of The White Ribbon, says his new film is a portrait of a society that gave birth to the Nazi generation. Isolated from the outside world but not from social metaphor, this is a national, indeed a global village. In a climate of everyday repression and parental brutality, passed from generation to generation, any political evil is possible. Nazism can bloom in Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the slaughtering armies in Rwanda and Sudan. Is man's humanity to man inherent? Or does it just have to be carefully taught? That is the central question of this fascinating film, which demands much of viewers and offers ample rewards for their involvement. (See pictures of the Cannes 2009 Red Carpet.)

The Munich-born, Austria-raised Haneke, 67, has been called the supreme sadist of European art cinema. His 1997 Funny Games, which detailed the psychological and physical torture of a family by two interlopers in tennis whites, was an insolent, almost pedagogical exercise in audience abuse. The Piano Teacher (2001), in which Isabelle Huppert is involved in various forms of sadomasochism with her mother, her young beau and herself, took the Grand Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes. Four years later Caché, the study of a family victimized by a mysterious provocateur, won Cannes' Best Director award on its way to becoming an international hit.

In an era when mainstream movies cozy up to their audiences, begging for acceptance, any director who challenges the viewer by boldly undercutting expectations may well be charged with mental cruelty. There's no doubt that Haneke's films are grim, and that they goad spectators to confront distasteful truths. But they are so expertly made that they carry their own cinematic wonder. And, given the state of the earth at this moment, we may ask which sort of filmmaker is more in touch with reality — the cheerleaders who confect standard comedies and action films, or the ones like Haneke who insist you look head-on at the face of intolerance. It could look a lot like your parent's face, or your own.

Haneke is not a perpetrator of cruelty but a prosecutor of it; and The White Ribbon, constructed step by meticulous step, scene by forbidding, foreboding scene, is his grandest indictment of intolerance. He tells a story of an entire society through five important men in the village — the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) who owns half the land in the area, his steward (Josef Bierbichler), a tenant farmer (Branko Samarovski), the doctor (Rainer Bock) and the pastor (Burghart Kluassner) — and their families. The one outsider is the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). All will be tainted by tragedy; many are responsible for provoking it. They may be evil, or they may be the enablers of evil: the weak ones who see signs of malignancy and do nothing.

"Father Told Me Not To"
The film takes its title from the ribbons the pastor forces his children to wear when he thinks they have disobeyed him. "The white color," he says, "was to remind you of innocence and purity." But this strict lesson, meant to inculcate the fear of God, doesn't always take root. In one early scene, the teacher sees Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the pastor's elder son, walking on the narrow rail of a wooden bridge above a stream. The teacher asks why he is risking his life, and the boy replies, "I gave God a chance to kill me."

Martin is an ordinarily rebellious kid, and this is quickly noticed by his father, an acute observer, or imaginer, of sin. In an inquisition cloaked in euphemism and oozing threats of early death and eternal damnation, the pastor exacts from Martin the confession that yes, he has been masturbating. His punishment: to sleep with his hands bound to the sides of his bed. When a fire breaks out nearby one night, Martin implores his younger brother to untie him. "I can't," the boy replies. "Father told me not to." A generation later, this would be the good Germans' answer to why they allowed or participated in the atrocities of the Third Reich. (It was the defense of the Kate Winslet character in The Reader.) They were only following the orders of their father, the Fuhrer.

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Iniquity, enmity, mystery seep through the pores of this film. Any child's supposed misdemeanor is punished by the harshest beatings. The doctor has sexually predatory designs on his young daughter, and is unsparingly sour to the village midwife, his assistant since his wife's death and his longtime mistress. One night she tries to arouse him and fails; and in a searing exchange that could have come from a Strindberg play, he catalogues the things he hates about her: she's messy, ugly, has bad breath. "My God, why don't you just die!" She strikes back by saying, "I have two retarded children, Karli and you — and you are the more troublesome."

Not every scene emphasizes the dangers of repressive patriarchy and a draconian Protestantism. Bad men can do good things. The doctor certainly seems efficient and caring in his practice. The pastor, also a widower, has wisdom as well as stern religious bromides to offer his children. When his younger son finds a wounded bird, the preacher gently tells the boy, "You must be father and mother to it, and then set it free." Later, when the man's pet parakeet was killed, the lad offers him the bird he has nursed back to health, because "You've been so sad since Peepsie died." The one pure relationship in The White Ribbon is between the teacher and Eva, eldest of the farmer's eight children. Their shy, sweet courtship is a series of sunrays in a troubled landscape; and the two actors, Friedel and the angelic Leonie Benesch, give their scenes emotional weight and buoyancy. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)

Days of Wrath
One of the movie's pleasures is the attention to physical and behavioral detail that Haneke lavishes on the town and its inhabitants. These are living, complicated people in a palpably real place. The village recalls the small-town settings in films by the most serene and searching of the old masters — Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light — and with the same use of luminous black-and-white that gives Bergman's film the look of a precious lithograph. The monochrome shadings of the interiors (from cinematographer Christian Berger) are so subtle that when the film cuts to a bright outdoor scene the contrast is almost blinding.

Some critics here have found the movie not blinding but hard to watch, so rigorous is its unmoving camera and its apparently synoptic misanthropy. Todd McCarthy, who with his Variety colleagues produces the smartest, most comprehensive reviews of the big Cannes banquet, detects "a medicinal quality" that makes The White Ribbon "a difficult film to entirely embrace." Yet for this viewer, the movie reveals a passionate if daunting humanism, and embraces intense emotion. In many scenes, the village children are so desperate to please their inquisitorial parents that they can't keep tears from running down their cheeks. Their tears are an expression sometimes of their fear of being punished, at other times of a sense of communal dread — as when one of the steward's daughters dreams that harm will come to Karli — then a clutch of guilt when the vision comes true.

The movie appears to be a mystery: Who committed these horrible acts, and how will the perpetrator be unmasked? Haneke doesn't have a pat answer for that — which shouldn't surprise. Many thought that Caché weaseled out of explaining whodunit. Yet the final shot does reveal the crucial clue to that film's mystery. In The White Ribbon, the last, long shot shows all the villagers, except for the teacher and Eva, filing into church for Sunday service; the pastor doesn't move to the altar but sits in a pew. As the scene slowly fades out, the realization dawns that Haneke has created a group portrait of the guilty, like a photo of the Nazi high command at the Nuremberg trials. This is truly a village of the damned.

On Sunday evening the Cannes jury, which this year is headed by Huppert, will announce its awards for the 62nd festival. For me, with this austerely told, severely enthralling masterwork, Cannes has found its Palme d'Or.

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