January 12, 2010

MOVIES: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

I must admit to being utterly perplexed by this one. It's a parable of some sort, set in a small German village in the years immediately preceding World War I. It's a nearly feudal place, with most of the land owned by a local baron, who directly employs about half of the villagers.

It's also a cold, repressive place; children are harshly disciplined for what seem like relatively small infractions. The white ribbon of the title is worn by the two oldest children of the town pastor -- the girl wears it in her hair, the boy wears it as an armband -- as a reminder of the purity they have failed to maintain; this punishment is imposed for the crime of being late to dinner.

The movie is narrated (in the present day) by the now-elderly schoolteacher, who tells us that the strange events he will relate bear some relation to, and will perhaps explain, later events in his country's history. It's hard not to take that a reference of some sort to the rise of the Nazis (especially when you've got some Germans making other Germans wear colored armbands as a sign of impurity).

The village is stricken with a rash of strange and violent incidents. The doctor is seriously injured when his horse trips over a wire strung between two trees. A farmer's wife is accidentally killed in the sawmill. A mentally disabled boy is viciously beaten. There are hints throughout that it may be the children who are doing all of these horrific things, but nothing is ever proven.

And the connection of all of this to German history is a bit vague, too, at least to me; it may be that if I were German, I would be picking up on all sorts of subtle cultural and historical references that simply fly over my American head. But without that, all I can really get from the movie is a beautifully photographed (in black and white) Teutonic variation on Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned or any "the children are eeeeee-viiiil" movie of your choice. It's never boring from moments to moment, but damned if I can figure out the point of it all.

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