I read very little about this, conscious of spoilers, but certain things, as with Antichrist, were unavoidably overheard (or given away in the trailer). So I knew it was set near the start of WWI and that the evil children in the trailer represent the birth of fascism, but I didn’t realize how subtly that point is made. There are unexplained events, the children increasingly seem responsible, then some major characters disappear and the narrator leaves town, with no ends neatly tied up.

Two things for sure: it’s an excellent movie and the camerawork (DP Christian Berger, his fifth with Haneke) is perfect, beating Cache by a mile. Apparently was shot digitally, in color, then post-processed. Very classic feel to the entire production, except to the acting, especially of the children, which is better than anything from the WWI or WWII eras (sorry, Wild Boys of the Road). Won awards almost everywhere (the BAFTAs preferred A Prophet and oscars preferred something from Argentina), beating out Basterds, Antichrist and Wild Grass at Cannes.

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Interesting to have a non-omniscient narrator, schoolteacher Christian Friedel, who goes on long sidetracks from the town mysteries to chase after a girl, nanny of the baron’s young twins. Town authority figures are painted as corrupt. The doctor (Rainer Bock, small role in Inglorious Basterds) is abusive and perverse to his daughter and to his girlfriend (Susanne Lothar, lead in Funny Games). The pastor (Burghart Klaussner, was just in The Reader) is a tyrannical father. The baron (Ulrich Tukur, The Lives of Others) exercises his power to throw families into poverty at will. The children don’t exhibit the usual responses of sullenness, fighting and petty power games, but band together to commit acts of planned vengeance, terrifying the town. Their crimes go officially undiscovered and unpunished at the end, Haneke’s point, I suppose, being that they grew into fascists and nazis.

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There is, of course, an absolute ton written about this movie already. The Times says “it lacks the intellectual and emotional nuance that would make this largely joyless world come to life,” but that’s just the common criticism that Haneke’s films are cold and unfeeling, which applies less to this film than to his others so I don’t see the point in bringing it up.

Indiewire: “With this detailed exploration of anonymous retribution, Haneke returns to the haunting terrain he last explored in Cache, although in this case, the retribution expands from a personal level to a larger critique of religious zealotry. … However, these events remain notably off-screen. Absence in The White Ribbon is the quality that makes it a harrowing work of art, rather than a historical soap opera.”

Salon: “It definitely can’t be reduced to a fable about the roots of fascism. The White Ribbon is a dense account of childhood, courtship, family and class relations in a painfully repressed and repressive society, which seems to channel both early Ingmar Bergman and the Bad Seed/Children of the Corn evil-tot tradition.”

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Haneke:

The film opens with the narrator saying, “I’m not sure if the story I’m about to tell you corresponds to what actually took place. I can only remember it dimly. I know a lot of the events only through hearsay.” So both those elements, then, raise mistrust in the audience as to the accuracy of what they’re going to be seeing, and the reality of what they’re going to be seeing. Both the black-and-white and the use of a narrator lead the audience to see the film as an artifact, and not as something that claims to be an accurate depiction of reality.

It’s only in mainstream cinema that films explain everything, and claim to have answers for anything that happens. In reality, we know so little about what happens. It’s far more productive for me to confront the audience with a complex reality that mirrors the contradictory nature of human experience.

I remember with my first film that was shown in Cannes, The Seventh Continent, there was a screening and afterward we had a discussion. The first question came from a woman who stood up and asked, “Is life in Austria as awful as that?” She didn’t want to accept the difficult questions being raised in the film, so she tried to limit them to a specific place and say, “That’s not my problem.” You could make the same mistake with this film, if you see it as only being about a specific period.

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Felt very little like Haneke’s other movies, maybe because it wasn’t set in modern-day Europe but in Kafka’s time, with horse-drawn carriages and long walks through the snow. Never got a handle on exactly what the lead character K was up to, except that he wanted to get to the Castle, felt he needed to get there in order to be important or get a better job or find his destiny or something, and used everyone around him for that purpose. They caught on, or knew all along, that he was being selfish and greedy and never let them into their world, never let on what they knew about the Castle or anything else… he remained an outsider. Sounds like it actually had a moral, a reason for K to be denied everything… seems kinda unlike Kafka. I mean the protagonist of The Trial never deserved what he got… truly he was sort of weaselly and oversensitive, but I thought he was an everyman, not a specific character type being punished for his flaws.

Had Haneke’s characteristic blackouts between scenes, and ended very apruptly, while K was in the middle of walking from one place to another through the snow for the forty-somethingth time. Not all bad as a movie, but a little dull, and horrid quality third-gen VHS makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. One day I’ll finally crack the book and see how faithful it was. Hopefully not too faithful, cuz that’s a big book and I’m hoping for more excitement than I got from the movie.

Katy did not watch it.

Troublesome movies because it’s the kind you’d want to watch a second time to fully study and understand BUT it’s got so many long shots of the family, their heads severed by the frame, eating breakfast, washing the car… then it gets so heavy at the end, not especially anxious to see it again soon.

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Family does boring stuff. One day, little girl at school pretends to be blind. Parents talk it over and even consult with the girl (not on camera). Write their parents a letter of explanation, which is the most dialogue in the whole movie. Cash in their car, empty their bank accounts. Flush all money down toilet. Destroy everything in the house. Kill themselves with pills.

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Adam Bingham says “the film is optimistic in its refusal to console its audience”. Also “one of the purest modernist texts since the height of Resnais and Antonioni, and perhaps the greatest contemporary contribution to what may be termed “the cinema of existentialism”: the focus on the actions and morality of individuals in a seemingly empty universe found in the work of film-makers like Chantal Akerman, Gaspar Noé and the Krzysztof Kieślowski of Dekalog.”

Overall good article at Kinoeye.org. I see his point that Haneke is, against all appearances, an optimist, and that this is an optimistic movie. I feel not only better about myself, but more determined after watching this movie. Mostly just “determined” to watch more movies, but hey it’s a start.

“My films are the expression of a desire for a better world,” Haneke says. In the same interview, he says he regrets once having called this the “glaciation trilogy” because he wants it to be more complex and not so easily labeled.

Old man living alone having trouble communicating with family. Student into ping pong and gambling. Runaway immigrant kid adopted by local family. News reports on global wars and celebrity scandal. A shooting at a bank. Punctuated by sudden silence and black between scenes.

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A clear predecessor to Code Unknown, but where I didn’t get C.U. at all, this one at least makes sense. Kind of your Amores Perros cross-sections of people united by an incident of violence, but of course far less obviously scripted. Not a causes-and-effects-of-violence sort of thing. The Haneke quote above makes perfect sense. He’s showing a bunch of familiar events, saying “what is wrong with this picture” and daring us to connect the dots. One of the most immediately easy to understand of his films, but still hard to watch.

Well, I don’t know about that, “hard to watch”. With the long static shots and the lack of narrative structure, I think of them as hard to watch. But then, I compulvisely rent them, and I’d watch Time of the Wolf or Cache again right now or anytime. Not unenjoyable, but not exactly a magic-carpet-ride of entertainment. Need to come up with a new term to describe these. How do you recommend a Haneke movie to someone? Obviously I’m not alone, since the thursday afternoon show of Cache was sold-out in new york, and the video releases have been flying off the shelf here for a month now… he’s a popular guy.

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Benny spends a lot of time in his room, given money but not attention by his parents, watching rental movies, news reports and homemade movies of his sister’s pyramid-scheme and a family-vacation pig-slaughter. Eventually, inevitably, he invites another girl home and kills her with the pig gun. Parents find out and help Benny hide the evidence. And Benny turns them in!

So apparently Haneke has been making this movie for years. Comfy rich family meets unexpected bursts of violence, shocking them our of their complacency. And we, the audience, who attend Austrian art movies… we are they! Their violence is ours! Or something, I dunno… Senses of Cinema is smarter than me, and has actual Haneke quotes:

Says the three movies just out on video are a trilogy, “reports of the progression of the emotional glaciation of my country”. “My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.” Mattias Frey points out echoes of Benny in Wes Bentley’s American Beauty character, which I should’ve thought of myself.

Benny's Video