Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaussner, and Rainer Boch. Directed by Michael Haneke.
Rated M (Mature themes and sexual references). 144 min.
Michael Haneke, Director of “Hidden” (2005), one of the finest films of the last decade, brings another extraordinary movie to the screen. This movie won the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and like all of Haneke’s films, it presents us with seemingly innocuous appearances that hide evil, and cruelty. His movies challenge the viewer, who is asked to engage in the puzzle of finding their meaning. His films promote insights that few directors have the courage to illustrate or reveal. In his own words, Haneke says: “At its best, film should be like a sky jump. It should give the viewer the option of taking flight, while the act of jumping is left up to him” (from an interview conducted with Haneke, October, 2009). This film fulfils that purpose. Art for Haneke exists to raise questions.
The film is about the Protestant village of Eichwald in rural Germany, just before the beginning of World War I, and events are narrated by Ernst Jacobi, as distant memories by the town’s schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). The children of the village will later become the adults, who will be part of Nazi Germany. The film is full of guilt, hatred, evil and desire that anticipate the madness that erupted in Germany a generation later, and issues are set in one period that have relevance to another. These children are that generation. They live in houses that are run with cruelty, rather than compassion. They have been trained in the ways of their parents, and they themselves have learned to inflict cruelty on others, just as their parents do on them. Violence and evil are everywhere in this village, and we are made to be voyeurs of their unfolding.
Something is wrong with almost everything in the village. First, the town doctor is injured seriously when his horse is tripped intentionally, then a farmer's wife is found dead when floorboards give way and she falls to her death, her grieving husband later dies, a barn is set ablaze, children disappear and are found beaten and mutilated, and an animal is impaled. The town as a whole is dedicated to puritanical teaching, and parents abuse. Significantly, the children have names. The adults are mostly known by their positions, such as the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the Baroness (Ursina Lardi), the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner), and the Doctor (Rainer Bock). The faces of the children convey both innocence and menace, but who is to blame? Although there are touching moments, this is a village where life is mostly cold, tyrannical and heartless. The White Ribbon is what the Pastor ties around his children’s arms, to remind them of lost innocence and purity. It is a compelling image of what is generated, and bred.
The innocent and pure love of the schoolteacher for Eva, the nanny of the Baron’s children (beautifully acted by Leonie Benesch), contrasts strikingly and dramatically with the malice of others. The film ends when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary is assassinated, an event which began World War I. Eva and the schoolteacher marry, and we are left to imagine what will happen afterwards.
The film is shot entirely in black-and-white, and the cinematography by Christian Berger is superb. The film’s images are bleak, cold and austere, and they create the illusion of a window looking out onto the past that opens up to evil yet to happen. Like “Hidden”, the movie is directed with consummate style and craftsmanship by Haneke, who is also a master of anticipation. The film is much more than a critique of moral depravity, and most of its violence takes place off-screen. Haneke asks you all the time to peel back the layers of meaning in what he shows. The last shot of the villagers praying in their Church, and his gradual fade-out to the final credits viewed in complete silence, suggest that even God himself is unhappy with these people.
This is one of the most powerful and arresting movies likely to appear in Australia for a long time. It received special mention by the ecumenical jury in Berlin’s 2009 International Film Festival, which saw humanity and hope lying above the depiction of cruelty and malice. It is a movie that should not be missed.
Paramount Pictures. Out May 6, 2010
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.