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: Movie Review - Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)
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Feb 20th 2010
This is the second film I watched that was directed by Michael Haneke. The first was the US remake of FUNNY GAMES. A pattern has emerged: it seems Haneke is a filmmaker with a message to express, but the message normally isn't very insightful. Which is okay; the message doesn't need to be revolutionary, only expressed in a good, well-directed story. And this is where Haneke fails; in a terribly pretentious decision, he sacrifices all the other aspects of his films (at least the two I've watched) to point out a message that isn't worth the sacrifice.
Take FUNNY GAMES. The movie literally speaks to the audience, manipulating us directly and constantly frustrating us by reversing our expectations. It breaks the immersion all the time, reminding us we're watching a film, which obviously sabotages our involvement with the characters and the film in general. Why?
Because it wants to point out our fascination with violence and desire for revenge.
So I'm not sure if Haneke believed this message to be genius, or if he's too much of a misanthrope to think the audience could have gotten the point unless he had the villains break the fourth wall and tell us the point. Regardless of his reasons, that's patronising. A message can be very organically inserted into a good story with intriguing characters and intelligent dialogue. TAXI DRIVER is one of many films that absolutely succeed at this.
In THE WHITE RIBBON, Haneke once again adopts a style that hurts every aspect of the story with the exception of his message. This film paints childhood in dark, bleak tones; set in a German village in the early 20th century, it illustrates the damage opressive parents did to their kids, raising an enraged generation that would eventually become the Nazi generation. Of course, that's just the historical setting -- the film is about the dangers and horrors of repression in general, the way authority generates rebellion as a part of human nature.
Which isn't particularly insightful. It's not a new message. Regardless, it is an important message that could have resulted in a great story. And instead, Haneke sacrifices the story for what he seems to consider a great message.
THE WHITE RIBBON is an incredibly dull film. The script is comprised of mundane scenes and boring conversations. Empty, shallow exchanges that take several minutes to get to the point, repetitive lines such as "I don't understand". Worse, some scenes immensely lack subtlety, like the moment the doctor points out to a woman everything he dislikes about her, in such a cruel, cold tone that it becomes unintentionally funny, as if Haneke is trying to hammer into the audience's skull how evil humanity (and particularly men) can be.
With a terrible (and unnecessary) narration from the protagonist played by Christian Friedel, the film follows the life of uninteresting characters for 144 minutes. There is no comedy or emotional involvement; the drama rarely feels real, possibly because of the lack of comedy and emotional involvement. Scenes go from one to the other with dry cuts that often feel too abrupt; ironic, since the film has many, many unnecessarily long scenes, but when it needs to let a scene linger a little while further, it doesn't.
This has to do with the style Haneke adopted as director: he rarely cuts, usually choosing a single angle or camera movement for an entire scene. This is something THE WHITE RIBBON, to a point, does very well. The cinematography is absolutely superb, with an ingenious use of shadows and brilliant placement of actors in the frame. Problem being, Haneke rarely cuts and so the scene tends to very long. This wouldn't necessarily be an issue; in a movie with boring scenes and shitty dialogue, though, it is.
There is, however, a moment when Haneke extends a scene for a very good reason: when a boy and his sister are about to be physically punished by their father, Haneke fixes his camera on the closed door beyond which is the room where the punishment will take place. The door opens, the boy leaves, enters another room, returns with a whip in his hand and goes back to the room, closing the door behind him. Seconds pass. We hear the sickening sound and a pained moan from the boy. Then another. And another.
Sadly, for most of the film, Haneke seems to hold his frames because he thinks they're brilliant, rather than for a good narrative reason such as the one described in the previous paragraph. He has a good eye for composition, but a bad notion of pacing; the scenes fail to reward the time invested in them, and the only interesting human moment in this film is the dance between the protagonist and his loved one during a party.
The cast is completely sabotaged by their shitty characters, so they failed to provoke an impression on me because I wasn't interested in any of them. The actors don't have much to work with. You can cry convincingly onscreen, or say a line of dialogue perfectly, but there isn't much point when the effect this has on the viewer is none.
So mostly, THE WHITE RIBBON is a cold, soulless film. It has something to say, but it's nothing new or nearly worth the movie's shortcomings. It's like the dullest person in the planet taking 144 minutes to explain something to you, in the blandest way possible. And personally, my reaction when the person was finally done was just a disappointed "well... yeah."
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