The White Ribbon [Das Weisse Band]

            [Guest reviewer  Barbara Artson, author of the novel Odessa, Odessa ]

Director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) opens in total darkness. We see nothing but hear only the elderly voice of a narrator:  

“I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay, and after so many years it remains obscure today, and I must leave it in darkness.”

And so the schoolteacher narrator, now an old man, begins his rendering in a series of flashbacks, depicting the mystifying and horrific happenings that transpired in his youth .  There is indeed something rotten in this pre-industrial, ruthless Lutheran culture in a small, agrarian German village shortly before the start of World War I.  .

We encounter the Pastor, his wife and children glumly seated at their dining room table.  They are arbitrarily sent to bed without dinner, but not before being forced to beg their brutal authoritarian father for forgiveness.  A special punishment, ten strokes of the cane, will be meted out and   after their penalty “purifies” them, the pastor informs them that their mother will attach a white ribbon for them to wear, only to be removed when they have proven their trustworthiness. 

Haneke’s films are not easy to watch, nor are they easy to understand. They confront the observer with aging, infirmity, and death (Amour), sexual perversity (The Piano Teacher), a critique of the media and the ways in which we avoid self-reflection (Cache), and hypocrisy (The White Ribbon). Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The children,  some twenty or twenty-five years later, will return as the Fascists and Nazis of World War II.   They might have asked the forgiveness of their callous, fathers, fathers who perpetrated psychic mortification and corporal violence,  but the seeds of repressed hatred will break through.  

 Heneke maintains that his film is not an explanation for the roots of Nazi terrorism, but the schoolteacher’s claim that his tale “may clarify some of the things that happened in this country,” asserts otherwise.  It seems plausible that Haneke, who grew up with the shame that plagued many of his generation, wrote under the spell of unconscious survivor’s guilt. 

The film, nevertheless, can also speak to us, who, are left in darkness. And weep.

Note: Available on Netflix.


“Amour”– A Somber Sonnet to Love

This year’s Cannes Film Festival winner is a film like no other on the dissolution and disintegration of life and the toll it throws at love.  As a five-time Academy Award nominee, “Amour“, directed by the Austrian Michael Haneke, is a spellbinding masterpiece. The superb Jean-Louis Trintignant of “A Man and a Woman” fame and the delicate Emanuelle Riva who stunned audiences in “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” are the capstone of this film.

Playing two retired octogenarian music teachers (Georges and Anne), these two masterful actors portray a deep and time-tested loving couple, sharing stories of their day with quiet tenderness and warmth. But Anne’s health declines precipitously after a mini-stroke and Georges becomes her dutiful caregiver, with little emotion towards those who worry about them, particularly his daughter Eva (played by Isabelle Huppert in a beautiful but minor role).

“Amour” demonstrates unsurpassable courage and unflinching honesty in exposing the deterioration of one’s spirit as life starts leaving it.   Riva and Trintignant’s subtle, delicately nuanced performances are classic, transcending linguistic barriers and strongly touching all viewers in the audience.  (The theater was so quiet, this viewer could hear the intake of breath and the quiet sobs of those nearby.) Everyone who sees this film will be affected.

Yet this is an unsentimental look at old age and dying, of decrepitude and the humiliating loss of dignity. Just as the two principal actors are intrepid in their performances, so too must the viewer be in receiving the images from the filmmaker. “Amour” is an epitaph of mourning, of having to face the certitude of death. It is painful to watch: to gaze at ageing and loss.  It will overwhelm; it will be heartbreaking.   Although “Amour” is the story of love and life’s end, the originality and the directness will surprise all who see this haunting film.