Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Michael Haneke, 2009
Starring: Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Burghart Klaussner, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar

As a director known for such bleak and uncompromising films (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Cache), Haneke has finally done it: he won the prestigious Palme d'Or from Cannes. Though it's still taking me a few days to sort out how I feel about Das Weisse Band, I think he and the film richly deserve the award. I would also strongly advise seeing it as soon as you can. There's a good chance this is my favorite film of the year.

In a pre-World War I German village, grisly incidents begin to occur. The village doctor is in a nasty riding accident and several children encounter various misfortunes, including attacks, abductions, and murder. In addition to these mysterious events, the film follows the normal, daily life of the villagers. The preacher punishes his children for committing sins (such as masturbation) and forces them to wear white arm bands while they repent. The doctor mistreats his mistress and sexually abuses his daughter. The villagers feel subjugated by the local baron and destroy his cabbage crop. And so on. Rather than having a cohesive plot, Das Weisse Band is a series of connected events that all take place in a little village a few weeks before World War I. At first, it innocently appears to be a straightforward murder mystery. It quickly becomes apparent that seeming clues lead nowhere and problems go unsolved, spiraling blackly downward to more mysteries and nasty incidents.

This is a film with no stars and no true protagonist. Though the school teacher narrates, he is merely stating facts and events, rather than coming to conclusions, offering solutions, or even partaking in much of the action. The acting is simple and understated and I don't think anyone in particular steals the show. The children, however, are amazing. Despite the difficulties of directing children, this ensemble group gives subtle, powerful performances, despite the fact that some of them are very young.

Das Weisse Band was shot in color, but altered to black and white, which works wonderfully here. Haneke's cinematographer, Christian Berger, studied Ingmar Bergman films to get down the interior darkness necessary for a lot of the shots and the influence is clearly felt. Though some of the scenes have a kind of muddy grayscale, over all it is very well done, particularly the use of natural light, candles, lamps, etc. The perfectly paired soundtrack is extremely uncomfortable. Watching a film with almost no music makes you incredibly aware of a) other theatre patrons, b) your own discomfort and c) other theatre patrons' discomfort. There is something kind of special about this brand of silence -- it would be so easy for Haneke to manipulate our feelings with stock classical music, subtly arousing our sympathies for one character or our hatred for another. Instead he presents a blank slate and forces the audience to confront the characters at face value.

Overall this film is extremely disorienting. Despite the harsh subject matter, it is marked by a definite absence of violence and shock value present in earlier films like Funny Games. It does retain his usual emotional frigidity, but I think it makes an important distinction. Where several of his earlier films are concerned with the kind of break down that happens when people try and fail to achieve love and intimacy (The Piano Teacher, Seventh Continent), Das Weisse Band is almost completely devoid of love. The characters are simply trying to survive the daily horrors of life, which leaves little room for things like personal growth or emotional expression. There is plenty of manipulation, domination, and exploitation from one character to another. Even the school teacher, who proposes marriage to the baron's governess, expresses more of an emotional neutrality than anything actually resembling love.

The visuals are as equally disorienting as the narrative. For a film chock-full of unpleasantness, many of the scenes are disturbingly ambiguous. Does the doctor really abuse his daughter? Why does he emotionally abuse his mistress? Has she done something that we didn't see or don't know about? The level of complicity between victim and perpetrator is so elevated, it's often difficult to tell which character is playing what role. There is also the troubling fact that most of the film's victims perpetrate some sort of hate or violence against another character. For example, the steward's son who gets tied to the bed in punishment later almost drowns a younger child over a toy.

This really is a brilliant film. Occasionally a bit slow, but always very purposefully paced, Das Weisse Band speaks about personal freedom and totalitarianism in a number of artful, subtle ways. It is a film about the willing resignation of freedom in a time of panic and evil and the wrongness of resigning that freedom. The pre-fascist environment is depicted as little more than the mundane environment of day-to-day life. The town isn't special or especially bad and the miasma that creeps in seems to be a natural reflection of human nature. It would be easy to see this film as a direct statement about the rise of Nazism, but I think it operates on more levels than basic historical commentary.

Go see it. Check out the single-disc Sony DVD. At some point, this deserved a Criterion release.

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