11 March 2010

Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) *

If I may be so bold: this film breaks two unspoken rules of western cinema. First, never have a voiceover sum up action that you could just as easily dramatize; and second, don't telegraph the solution to your mystery in the first five minutes of your two-plus hour film. The first one -- unfortunately, that's broken all the time (I'm looking at you, Avatar, and also you, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). The second and more egregious crime -- also occasionally broken, though thankfully a lot less often.

But here's the thing: Michael Haneke's way too much a master of cinema (watching something as austere and reserved and cinematic as this, you can't help but think of Bergman) to make these mistakes lightly. It's not lazy when Haneke does it. So what's he doing to us? Well, he's telling us who the killers are so we can instead look at the rest of the story and see how monsters are formed. I jokingly called this film The Biggest Jerk in Jerktown, and aside from just loving the title for its own sake (maybe one day I'll find a use for it) I think there's something to that. Cold, ruthless cruelty runs so deep in this German village that the moments of genuine warmth feel a little awkward and misplaced, maybe even suspect. You're just waiting for something terrible to befall the young lovers, or the cute kid with the bird.

The German title includes a subtitle, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, which Google tells me translates as "A German children's story." Take that how you will. Cynical in-joke? Challenge to your perspective? Unsubtle foreshadowing? Again, Haneke is a master: I'm going to say it's a little of each.

Seen at the Fox Tower.

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