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The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band - Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte)

As that story of White Ribbon is uncertain, as the causes and effects may be confused, the significantly named Eva looks more and more like a way out, however fictional.

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band - Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte)

Director: Michel Haneke
Cast: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Michael Kranz, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Josef Bierbichler, Rainer Bock, Branko Samarovski, Roxanne Duran
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-30 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-11-13 (General release)

The White Ribbon is cold in most every sense. The black-white-and-grey palette is chilling, as are the windy rural landscapes and closeups of children's grim faces. They're looking on a future they cannot imagine, as the film is set in Germany during the months before World War I begins, and yet they seem shaped by it nonetheless -- framed by history even as they are set apart.

This sense of distance is of a piece with the contemplative aesthetic associated with director Michael Haneke. The White Ribbon (subtitled "A Children's Story") begins in a long shot, observing a father and doctor (Rainer Bock) as he returns home to Eichwald. His horse gallops until it falls, tripped by a wire whose origins will remain unknown. The accident is abrupt and jarring, the aftereffects lingering. As the doctor recovers, his fellow villagers begin to notice other mishaps and acts of violence, none quite explained and all unsettling. "I don't know how to tell you the story," the film's narrator initiates, because some parts of it seem "not entirely true," and other parts may be "hearsay."

This narrator turns out to be the most agreeable of the locals whose stern visages appear on screen, the Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). As he notes here, his efforts to parse what's true and what's not, to piece together the story in the telling, are hardly helped by hindsight. Still, he describes events from his limited vantage point, that is, tending to students who are increasingly distracted while he is himself also preoccupied, by the appearance of a new nanny in town, the lovely, 17-year-old Eva (Leonie Benesch). It's easy to see how the 31-year-old teacher is attracted to her, for her sunny, adorably shy smiles provide an extreme contrast to their forbidding surroundings. Indeed, her warmth and sensuality (as well as her social reserve and utter faith in her father's wishes) seem almost alien here, amid the dour expressions and grey skies.

According to the Schoolteacher (who is looking back on his youth, voiced as an older man by Ernst Jacobi), it's never clear how this mood settled over the village. But even as he's diverted by his newfound pursuit of sunshine, he takes time to note the persistence of gloom, embodied on by Eichwald's primary employer, the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) on one hand, and the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) on the other. As the community's ostensible spiritual leader, the Protestant pastor expects his own children to behave flawlessly. As his wife Anna (Steffi Kuhnert) looks on silently, he punishes his oldest son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) and daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) for minor infractions by making them wear white ribbons, emblems of the purity to which they must aspire as well as markers of their shame for failing. In these moments, the children -- blond and ghastly pale -- appear to absorb how to cope with frustration and alienation. Just so, when the Pastor ties Martin to the bed, out of concern that he's been masturbating at night, his siblings only observe and accept, understanding that this structure of disappointment and abuse is their lot, that their futures depend on submission.

Other domestic scenes -- occurring quite beyond the Schoolteacher's view, or so it seems -- reveal other dysfunctions, or perhaps more to the point, the usual business of village elders' lives. Each acts out stunning cruelties, including the Doctor who suffers the film's first violence: laid up at home, he engages in a decidedly unpleasant adultery with the woman he pays to look after his children, Mrs. Wagner (Susanne Lothar). When she objects to his unkindness, he dismisses her abruptly; when the film later reveals his alternative object of lust, it's both shocking and predictable, the logical result of his absolute authority at home and especially, in his mind.

As such daily meanness is revealed in scene after scene (most enacted by men), the film doesn't so much indict the villains as track the effects on victims. Whether bound by ropes or demarked by ribbons, chafing in classrooms or finding weaker, more naïve targets for their own frustrations, the victims are crucial elements in cycles of abject hopelessness and clawing, narcissistic aspiration. They work so hard to survive, to find reprieve from the collective "apathy and brutality," they are at once weary, understandable, and liable.

Again and again, the film returns to Eva's generosity and sense of propriety for its own sake -- not to mention her earnest innocence and wide eyes, featured especially in a scene where the couple drives a wagon to the countryside, the camera fixed on her face, vibrant and charming in the weird grey light. Her otherness at once grounds the Schoolteacher's story and grants the rest of us some brief respite. As that story is, he insists, uncertain, as the causes and effects may be confused, the significantly named Eva looks more and more like a way out, however fictional.


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