December 30, 2009 [The White Ribbon]

Michael Haneke's movies shout so loudly down cinema's corridors that echoes are inevitable. Funny Games reminded me of not only Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but also Murnau's The Last Laugh, in which the film decides that its ending is too sad and supplies an extravagant celebration of good fortune—of course, Silly Games plays that game in reverse, rewinding itself (a fun camera-trick in Murnau's day, a cut-to-the-bone cheat in the home-video age) so that the victims' escape is thwarted. And Time of the Wolf felt like Panic in the Year Zero—but without any panic whatsoever. Both Caché and Lost Highway share the menace of surveillance, the mysterious tape left on the doorstep—although Chaché's surrealism is less, um, comforting than David Lynch's in Lost Highway—if only because Lynch never loses his sense of humor. As he walks down the hall, Haneke calls out, and answers, and joins those other movies in the dark part.

And in The White Ribbon he walks a long long way into the silent era, and finds a black and white movie framed in medium shots for the people, long for landscapes, with voiceover filling in for title cards, a soft focus and a deliberately visual emphasis on faces—pale, like silent movie actors, with that cast of features that you see in movies made right around World War I (when his own movie is set), a look that seems somehow extinct from the species. Was it the diet back then? The water? Maybe it was the sense that the Western world still needed horses and lamplight that gave them that look—at once less hurried and more anxious.

In any case, The White Ribbon stretches out back there in the past and the camera holds on those faces while evil deeds multiply—and evil words (from, of course, the pillars of the community: Baron, preacher, doctor) spill out—but softly, like a memory (the schoolteacher is looking back as an old man at his youth; you can hear it in his voice: that some events have slipped his mind and a number of details are gone). And these memories of sadism and scorn and hidden motives back there in a village of the second decade of the twentieth century spread before us, the years preceding the Great War filled with German uncertainty relieved by casual cruelty—but are we simply seeing the birth of Nazism? Maybe: the children, who seem so mysterious, so flatly impassive—inscrutable—will be in their twenties and thirties during World War II. But of course something else is going on here: a mystery about the nature of mystery. We want to round up the usual suspects and capture all culprits—but suddenly the narrator, our only tie to the story, lets us know that he was drafted into the war, then took over his dead father's tailor shop in another town, and never saw any of the villagers again.

That's all.


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