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August 17, 2009 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

The White Ribbon


A few weeks ago I made the claim Michael Haneke was perhaps the finest director working today. I still firmly believe that after I had the privilege of seeing The White Ribbon, a late addition to the film festival. Haneke’s film is everything the early reviews said it was—austere, chilling and brilliant. Yet nobody seemed to mention the surprising thing about this film, which is that it is by far the most liberated Haneke has made.

The White Ribbon opens with the startling image of a man taking a fall from his horse, the first of a series of strange and terrifying incidents that plague a small German village in the lead-up to WW1. The film is narrated by the village schoolteacher, who recounts only the events he witnessed. The intermitting scenes depict what he was unable to see, the troubling things that were happening behind closed doors.

The film is shot in striking black-and-white with mise-en-scene that can only be described as impeccable. Haneke’s long takes aren’t always the static ones we are used to. The shot when Martin is about to be caned by his father has the grace of the very best of Ophuls and is the finest camera work I have seen this year. The framing may perplex some, but like everything in Haneke’s universe it is intentional. I will leave interpretations of its significance up to you.

The performances are faultless. Regulars like Susanne Lothar are as good as ever, but the kids in this film are simply superb. Two scenes, one in which the adorable Gustav quizzes his sister on death, and another when Martin trembles at the vehemence of his father’s words, should leave you in awe of Haneke’s ability to elicit powerful performances from young children.

The relationship between the teacher and Elle is by far the most natural Haneke has depicted. The proposal scene also breaks new territory by being genuinely funny. Both prove Haneke is not only a great director, but a brilliant writer who can oscillate between humour and horror without compromising tone. The scene on the carriage is like nothing I have ever seen in Haneke’s cinema, and probably surprised me more than anything else.

A deserving winner at Cannes and probably the best film I have seen this year.

The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke.
With Ulrich Tukur, Susanne Lothar, Burghart Klaußner


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