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Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The White Ribbon (2009)

A few weeks ago The Times published a list of the 100 best films since 2000 -- without any criteria let it be said as to how their film writers reached their final selection (which contained some rather dubious choices from my point of view.) Very surprisingly number one on the list was director Michael Haneke's "Hidden" (Cache) from 2005. Now, I know a lot of people think highly of that movie but I found it very unsatisfying in a number of ways, especially in its lack of resolution.

The above film won the Palme d'or at this year's Cannes Festival and I think this win was well deserved. This film is a far more accomplished one than "Hidden", but I should add that it is a very, very nasty one that leaves a definite aftertaste of disgust. It is set in a small, secluded German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I and is narrated, apparently many years later, by the young schoolmaster of the village -- just one of a number of local characters to whom we are introduced: the pastor, the doctor, the midwife, the Baron and Baroness, their Steward, a local farmer, and their many children. The film's German title is subtitled 'A German Children's Story' and the blank-faced youngsters here immediately bring to mind the scary kids from "The Village of the Damned".

A series of unexplained and cruel events take place starting with a tripwire knocking the doctor from his horse and running through a Down's syndrome child being physically abused. There is a strong suggestion that the local children are inherently malicious and responsible for the various outrages, this being a template for the Nazis they will become in later years, but there is much more to Haneke's thesis. There is cunning and evil in the hearts of most of the characters. The doctor who has been having an affair with the midwife casts her away in the ugliest of fashions and is almost certainly sexually abusing his teenaged daughter. The pastor who maintains a holier-than-thou demeanour is a sadistic tyrant with his own family. The son of the farmer blames the baron for his mother's accidental death, destroying a cabbage patch, and his father is almost certainly responsible for a barn-burning before hanging himself. The director seems to be saying that the potential for wrong-doing exists in all of us -- a very black view of the human condition.

What makes this film memorable is the black and white lovingly photgraphed local setting, whose bucolic beauty contrasts strikingly with the evils of the story. One comes away hating the director's strong and negative moral message, while still admiring the skill with which it is told.
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