"To shatter the strong, to spoil great hopes, to cast suspicion on the delight in beauty, to break down everything autonomous, manly, conquering, and imperious—all instincts which are natural to the highest and most successful type of 'man'— into uncertainty, distress of conscience, and self-destruction; forsooth, to invert all love of the earthly and of supremacy over the earth, into hatred of the earth and earthly things—THAT is the task the Church imposed on itself...If one could observe the strangely painful, equally coarse and refined comedy of European Christianity with the derisive and impartial eye of an Epicurean god, I should think one would never cease marvelling and laughing; does it not actually seem that some single will has ruled over Europe for eighteen centuries in order to make a SUBLIME ABORTION of man?" —Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886
Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (Caché, Funny Games) has made a cinematic career of considering "evil" in its sources and our response to it. Encouraged by religion, most think of good and evil as absolutes, but they are, more often than not, more shaded than pure in character: good often being colored by unselfless motivations, and evil by a degree of helplessness in submission to social nurture. Haneke's noodlings on the nature of evil—he has been less concerned with goodness, cynically (or realistically?) finding less of it in his experience—reach a sort of culmination in The White Ribbon, 2009 Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. Filmed in unsparing black and white, The White Ribbon unblinkingly regards the tutelage of evil in a Protestant village in Northern Germany on the eve of World War I.
Eichwald, Germany provides an archetypal rural setting for the limited-in-scope pre-feminist values of the three "K"s: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Male dominance is presumptive, a point underlined by the limited perspective of the male narrator—a mousy schoolteacher (Christian Friedel)—and the imposing reigns of the local baron (Ulrich Tukur), doctor (Rainer Bock) and pastor (Burghart Klaussner), all of whom imperiously "wear the pants." The mercurial baron shows suspicion to women, always erring in favor of masculine authority. The doctor, a widower, acts with emotional cruelty and sexual impunity in taking what we wants from his housekeeper and teenage daughter. And the pastor ties his boy's hands to the bed when puberty inevitably leads the boy to masturbation, but one punishment in an endless campaign of Protestant guilt meant to shame his children for their natures: the film's title refers to the white ribbons the pastor solemnly doles out to his children as a reminder of the purity they blot out every time they—in his estimation—fall from grace.
Quoth Stephen Sondheim, "Careful the things you say,/Children will listen." With a preternatural quiet Haneke uses to unsettle the viewer, the omnipresent children of the village take on the quality of a creeping horror (taken with Christian Berger's voluptous chiaroscuro photography, the oft-impassive children inevitably evoke Village of the Damned). The boys are watching, listening and absorbing the lessons of the town fathers, and both sexes suffer from what Elias Canetti identified in his book Crowds and Power as "the sting," a psychological hurt (bullying, abuse) that must be exorcised in reenactment. Haneke's slow, methodical plot consists largely of sociological exposition of the town, but it's also an unfolding mystery of crimes we're told more than once will never be solved. These crimes—a web of "accidents" that, as they compound, reveal themselves to be part of an inscrutable design—may be another lesson for the children to absorb or perhaps, shockingly, evidence of the youth coming into its own as the generation that will be adult participants in the age of Nazism.
The most common criticism of Haneke is his coldness, and The White Ribbon is not exempt from this charge with its methodical formalism and deliberate pacing. And yet these stylistic tropes are appropriate both to Haneke's self-knowledge as a stylist and to the material he explores, perhaps never more so than in The White Ribbon. That said, The White Ribbon does explore primal emotion, but more specifically, the consequences of keeping it lashed down when it is recognized—for when it goes unnoticed or unallayed, it is free to cause havoc. I have already noted the moral(istic) impunity of the adult males (to see it as an allegory for political patriarchy is no stretch), but much of the film's power comes from the fearful implosion (and off-screen explosion?) of their victims, the village's women and children. Leonard Proxauf and Thibault Sérié as the pastor's boys—one scarred and one sadly doomed to be—lead an exceptional ensemble of child actors, and the adults are no slouches either. The White Ribbon ties one on to the audience, intentionally too tight for comfort.
Not surprisingly, Sony delivers The White Ribbon to Blu-ray in a gorgeous hi-def transfer. Astonishing detail distinguishes the image, which deftly renders the chiaroscuro photography with crisp contrast, ravishing textures, and deep blacks. The picture doesn't wipe away film grain, thankfully, but it's nevertheless sharp as a tack and yields exceptional depth. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes (original German and dubbed English options are provided) are likewise excellent, providing crisp dialogue, subtle ambience and nice use of the surround channels to create a crucially immersive effect.
Sony doesn't skimp on the bonus features here. "Making of The White Ribbon" (38:40, SD) presents an extensive running interview with director Michael Haneke interspersed with footage from the child actors' auditions, a behind-the-scenes look at the production with some intriguing raw footage of the shoot, and a record of the film's presence at the 2009 Festival de Cannes.
"My Life" (50:09, SD) is an extensive profile of Haneke with comments from the man himself, Burghart Klaussner, Susanne Lothar, Haneke's wife Susi, Ulrich Tukur, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and cinematographer Christian Berger.
"Cannes Film Festival Premiere" (18:36, SD) consists of much of the press conference with Haneke, Tukur, Klaussner, Rainer Bock, Christian Friedel, and Leonie Benesch, as well as the presentation of the Palme d'or from jury president Isabelle Huppert to Haneke, who delivers an acceptance speech.
"An Interview with Michael Haneke" (14:08, SD) offers yet more reflections from the director on the film's production and his thematic intentions, and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:21, HD) rounds out the disc.
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