Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Love: The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)

There are many incredible, pitch perfect films out there. If you asked me to name a top ten list I couldn't, as over the short lifespan of film, there have been hundreds of masterpieces. But Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is hands down, one of the most beautiful works of art ever created, unique in it's ability to capture an endless depth of emotion, humanity, and life rarely seen in any media.

Taking place right before WWI, the war that would strip the world of its innocence and usher in an ongoing era of increased mechanization and violence, the film is narrated by the school teacher of a small German town. Now an old man, he relives the series of strange events that took place just before it. These events are never quite linked or resolved, a series of violent vignettes that expose the realities of innocence lost in everyday life, that despite being presented in a small town 100 years earlier, are eerily true, no different from the feeling I get watching the news; soaking up the strange and horrible things that we do to each other before moving on with life. The impending war is mentioned almost as an afterthought, a delicious thing to ponder after the lights go up and you put it into the puzzle pieces of the film's mood.

It's not an easy work to compartmentalize or explain. I usually associate Haneke with a gritty brutality that scrapes unrelentingly at the darkness of the human soul and dregs up whatever he finds there. But here, he uses a soft and gentle hand to collect the bittersweet melancholy of what it was like to be a child and discover things about the world, examining and experiencing death, violence, sex, and love for the first time, or an older person aware of this sad brutality but resigned to its existence. His ensemble cast of characters are broad, from the injured Doctor and his family, to the Preacher and his band of repressed and evil looking children, to the workers on the Baron's estate, and yet Haneke encapsulates the lives of each person, making the audience relate to them as intimately as they would their own souls. The cast, composed mostly of child actors, is stunning, even the smallest children perfectly sunk down into the character to the point where actor no longer exists.

The scene among many in the film that will haunt me forever, is of a four year old boy eating soup with his sister at the kitchen window. Their father (the Doctor) has been injured and has been away to heal for months, their mother dead from the little boy's birth. The boys asks his sister a series of questions about death: Does everyone die? Will Daddy die? Will I die? So Mommy died? She didn't really go on vacation? The sister responds as most adults do: Yes, we all die, but not for a very long time, so you don't have to worry. The little boy crashes his soup onto the floor.

It all sounds cliched and overly philosophical, a classic art house film if you've ever seen one, but the difference is that Haneke doesn't force it. He never tells the audience anything, but presents each person, action, and emotion as it happens. There's no gloss here to separate the audience from the story other than the steady and perfectly composed shots that simply encourage the emotion, not create it. It's the real deal, as poignant as the opening credits for To Kill A Mockingbird. You feel this movie, you don't watch it.

As a result, it's not for everyone, and may not even be suitable for consistent viewings, definitely "slow" in its pacing. It's a work to savor and pull out for quiet introspection, or when you need a reminder of what genius cinematic art and real direction looks like.

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