Monday, March 01, 2010

Black Hearts Under a "White Ribbon"


Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte
directed by Michael Haneke
Winner of the Palme d'Or; nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar

Although I’ve seen only two films by Michael Haneke, there’s one point I feel confident making to those who haven’t seen any: do not go into his films—including his latest, “The White Ribbon”—expecting either closure or catharsis. You won’t get either. What you will get is a fascinating, deeply disquieting study of the capacity of ostensibly civilized humans to inflict shocking cruelty on one another, and to pass this unholy legacy on to their children.

“The White Ribbon” takes place in a deceptively pastoral German village, circa 1913-14. Like Haneke’s last film, “Caché,” it’s structured around a mystery—a series of disturbing incidents that gradually escalate in nastiness—but is less a whodunit than a psychological portrait of the kind of society that could engender such violence. Whereas “Caché” focused on the effect of the incidents on their targets, to the point that the identity of the perpetrator became virtually irrelevant, there’s a very strong indication throughout “The White Ribbon” as to who’s behind at least some of the crimes, though the film does leave just enough ambiguity to entertain other possibilities. Such speculation, however, is beside the point, as the real question here isn’t who or even why, but rather how. How could it come to this? And projecting forward, what could come next? One need only look at history for the answer: as Haneke himself has made clear in interviews, “The White Ribbon” posits that the seeds of the fascism, and worse, that overtook Germany in the 1930s and ’40s lay in the culture embodied in the pre-WWI community of “The White Ribbon.” Whether or not he proves his point is open to debate. But even if he doesn’t, the result is a film that’s at once unnervingly creepy and even more unnervingly beautiful.

Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of “The White Ribbon” is the contrast between the pristine quality of the black-and-white cinematography—the exquisite clarity with which it highlights a child’s cheekbone, a church choir, a bucolic harvest celebration, or a new snowfall—and the corrosive evil that lies underneath all these emblems of purity. Haneke seems to trace the roots of the evil to a rigidly patriarchal social order and repressive Protestantism that produced an authoritarian, almost tyrannical culture of oppression and abuse, warping its children for generations to come. It may be 1913, yet there’s something curiously pre-modern about this village, and quasi-allegorical about its major figures—fittingly, most of the adults are known only by their titles: the Doctor, the Pastor, the Baron, the Schoolmaster, etc. The overall effect is more than a little reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman; the pastor alone could have stepped right out of, say, “Fanny and Alexander.” At the same time, there is a sense, punctuated by the “incidents,” that the moral authority that he and his peers represent is on the edge of a precipice.

This tension creates an atmosphere of nameless, unrelenting dread that never relaxes its grip. In fact, it’s drawn out so long (warning: the movie clocks in at nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes) that after a while you may feel worn out constantly anticipating horrible shit to happen. And horrible shit does happen, though mostly offscreen: the viewer is repeatedly forced into the uncomfortable perspective of an eavesdropper, lingering just outside a door or window that’s partly or wholly closed, catching a glimpse only before or after the act. Contributing to this recurring ellipsis is the fact that the story is recounted by the schoolmaster looking back at a distance of twenty years; he himself admits at the outset that he has only a partial, imperfect understanding of what actually happened. Still, unreliable narrator though he is, we can’t help implicitly trusting him, as in his account, at least, he comes across as one of the few sympathetic characters in this village of the damned. His courtship of a girl from a neighboring village offers one of the few sources of warmth and humor in the film. Yet even the girl has a guarded, too easily-frightened air that hints that she, too, is affected by the shadow that darkens everyone else.

For all its meticulous craftsmanship, “The White Ribbon” obviously isn’t an easy film to watch, much less enjoy. It’s heavy and dark, very deliberately paced, and might fairly, if somewhat paradoxically, be accused of being both overly simplistic and overly obscure. Some may argue that it fails to offer any particularly profound or persuasive insight into the moral questions it purports to address. But whatever the final verdict, it's set up to stir viewers first to ponder and then to discuss what it says about humanity. And that, in itself, is a rarity.

Also saw:


directed by Michael Hoffman
starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon

Even in his last, waning years, Leo Tolstoy was a rock star. That, at least, was the most vivid takeaway I got from “The Last Station,” a lazily enjoyable period-ish film about the great Russian author (Christopher Plummer), though equally about his tempestuous wife, Sofya Andreyevna (Helen Mirren). Like any rock star, the Tolstoy we see here has attained near-iconic status, with eager journalists and even more eager disciples practically perched on his doorstep, and other familiar trappings of celebrity, including a turbulent marriage and an ongoing tug-of-war between his wife and his acolyte-in-chief, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The latter pair of antagonists have locked horns over who will inherit the rights to his written works, and we see their struggle through the eyes of Tolstoy’s new secretary, the idealistic Valentin (James McAvoy), whom both Sofya and Chertkov attempt to coopt as an ally within the Tolstoy household. Valentin’s sympathies are soon torn between, on the one hand, his devotion to the brand of “Tolstoyism” represented by Chertkov, who speaks a shade too smoothly about wanting to preserve Tolstoy for “the people,” and, on the other, the force embodied in Sofya—the force of tradition, sure, but more importantly, of love and blood-loyalty. He gets particularly confused when he falls for a fellow Tolstoy follower (Kerry Condon) who doesn’t have much use for some of the tenets of Tolstoyism, like celibacy. (To be sure, Tolstoy himself is far from a model Tolstoyite, as he himself admits with appealing candor.)

“The Last Station” is rather pedestrian and predictable, but it has its charms—chiefly the performances, though it also gave me a tangible yearning for a samovar and an estate in the Russian countryside. It’s also funnier and lighter of touch than you might expect; McAvoy does a variation on his usual arc from wet-behind-the-ears naif to wiser, emotionally chastened man, but he does it well, while the always-reliable Giamatti is tartly amusing as the schemer who at some level seems to believe his own spiel. Still, the main attraction here is undeniably the virtuosic (and Oscar-nominated) duet of Plummer and Mirren as the couple who can live neither with nor without each other. Not sure why Mirren’s been billed as lead and Plummer supporting, unless it was done purely for Oscars purposes, but the two are so well matched that they come across as an eminently believable married couple. What’s most remarkable is their ability to convey, in the interstices of all Sofya’s dramatic posturing and Lev Nikolayevich’s harumphing, a genuine, unfeigned tenderness born of decades of intimacy. If “The Last Station” sometimes feels like a course in Love 101 for the inexperienced Valentin, at least it leaves no doubt he’s learning from the masters.



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