Monday, March 1, 2010

The Brutality of "The White Ribbon"

When we ask the question, "What sort of society can produce a Hitler?" we have only to look at Michael Haneke's starkly told tale in "The White Ribbon" for a glimpse into how a tyrant might be formed.

The film, which won the Palme D'Or in Cannes in 2009 is nominated for two Oscars this year for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film, offers us no easy answers.

Using Christian Berger's majestic yet claustrophobic cinematography, Haneke rips us of the luxury of watching depravity from a cushioned seat. We are forced, from the scoreless opening scene to the perplexing last, to inhabit the world of a German village on the cusp of World War I. Crimes against animals and humans are occurring at an alarming rate. Brutality is barely hidden under a facade of civilized formality. Children are tortured and molested, and they, in turn, become torturers. And the women, of course, are used as objects. In objectifying both women and children, the men objectify themselves.

Haneke's brilliance lies in how he tells the story. There is no opening score and no opening dialogue in place of it. We start with a bare, black screen. Haneke doesn't tell us what to think in his opening (as scores tend to do); instead, we are left alone. Even the narration of the young and ebullient teacher (played by Christian Friedel; narration by Ernst Jacobi) in his autumn years never quite lets us off the hook.The dialogue is crisp, brutal and unflinching. Abuse is not flung; it is simply, cruelly and matter-of-factly, stated.

The film was shot with monochrome cinematography which is attained by shooting in color and gradually draining the color away. This seems to be a reflection of the life of the people of this village. We know the children's names in the movie; they still have some vitality. We know the adults only by what they do: the minister; the baron; the baroness; the doctor, nanny, and the teacher. Individuality is lost on all adults except the teacher and the nanny, but they're still young. It is no wonder that even in this terrible terrain, love begins to blossom between the two. And it's this love that makes immersion in this movie almost bearable. If this love did not exist, there would be no reality to this movie, because nowhere in human experience is everything just mere brutality. Hope is always offered.

However, love is not the only passion we are witness to. Crimes of brutality exhibit a kind of passion, albeit quite disordered. A willingness to torture and molest needs to have some concern over whether or not the victim dies or is hurt, even if the intention of the perpetrator is to maim or kill. One of the crimes, the beating of a child and stringing him up to hang upside down, is indicative of at least a desire of some kind. Had the perpetrators not had any of this feeling, they would be completely dead. And that is one of the scary things about emotion--it requires risk, and when the attempt to suppress it nearly succeeds, brutality erupts.

At the end, Haneke gives us no answers. He never tells us who committed the crimes, and perhaps that's for the better. If we knew who did these atrocities, we could blame a lone individual or two and the rest of that repressive society is off the hook. But the fact, at least to the mind of this reviewer, is that such a repressive and brutal society is bound to produce a Hitler.

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