Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The White Ribbon

Seriously, aren’t you tired of the same old crap? The simple three act structure of American whodunit films? We’re introduced to the characters, they’re soon introduced to conflict, the conflict is resolved, the ending is bow-wrapped, the mystery is gone, and we’ve forgotten what we’ve seen before we’re out of the theatre. Wham. Bam. Thank you ma’am.

No, what I’m talking about here is an experience. A film that so delicately evolves right in front of you, it actually makes you feel like you’re there. If done right, you’re given the ultimate fly-on-the-wall approach. Enter The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s masterful new film, up for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year.

The movie is about a seemingly innocent small German village before the dawn of WWI. The characters are set; the doctor, the strict pastor, the friendly school teacher, the wealthy baron, the strange little kids, and so on. Everything is fine and dandy until the doctor, on horseback, is injured by a hidden wire slung between two trees. More violent acts begin to occur, making the events seem less and less random. “Let me say what we all know,” the baron says to the town one morning in church. “The person committing these acts is in this room.”

And there’s the kicker. Haneke, as he proved with his subtle masterpiece Caché, isn’t as concerned with who did it, as he is with why it is done. The White Ribbon is an evolving mystery. Haneke doesn’t want you to get caught up with grand finales and clear distinctions.

I’ll be honest, there isn’t much to like on the surface. The movie is black and white, two and a half hours, stars no one you’ve ever heard of, and is directed by some German dude you probably don’t know. But allow me to flip that around.

It’s utterly impossible to imagine this film in color. Color would add too much tone, if that makes sense. The children, with their sullen creepiness, would look too human in lush color. Interesting note: the movie was shot in color, then digitally transferred to black and white; which is why it looks so vivid and got its cinematographer nominated for an Oscar. A running time of two and half hours is a blessing for a film like The White Ribbon. I’m not going to lie: the film is slow. But there’s a difference between dragging on and being patiently paced. You have to invest time with these people, if you want to give a damn about the story.

And now, maybe most importantly, the brilliant cast. The actors involved make the movie. When we see a character get hurt in the first scene of a film, we’re trained to sympathize with that character, as we initially do with the doctor. When we hear a man say he is going to beat his children early in a film, we’re trained to hate that character, as we do with the pastor. And here again lies the beauty of this picture: we soon learn that the doctor is a complete monster, and that the pastor, while very stern, is by no means an awful man.

There is a great benefit to casting unknowns. As long as George Clooney is on screen, you’re never going to believe that his character molests his daughter. I like Morgan Freeman, but you’re never going to see the dude beat his kids with a stick. By casting unknowns, the audience eliminates their judgments of that particular actor. We’ve never seen them, so we have no idea what they are capable of. Casting a Dakota Fanning or Taylor Lautner as one of the eerily children would completely take away from the film’s ultimate mystery.

Some critics have said the movie is designed to explain the genesis of Nazism. Relax already. Don’t play too much into it. Besides, I have to get you to see the damn thing first. If you do, I promise you won’t be sorry. In fact, you’ll be debating it in your head for days. Wham. Bam. Thank you ma’am. A+

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