The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009)

Michael Haneke unearths the jarring cycles of life and death, connecting menacing physical landscapes with man’s breaking mental terrain. The Austrian director slowly unveils these patterns, linking the changing seasons with shifting ideologies and fears, juxtaposing natural order and man-made sin to personify the instinctual brutality residing under the surface. Told as a gap-riddled omniscient memory, Haneke’s The White Ribbon meticulously deconstructs the actions and reactions of a small German town (existing in seeming normalcy immediately preceding WWI) with this glaring attention to both natural and psychological detail. Envy, greed, and sloth rot the communal apple at its core, weaving an epic tapestry of mistrust surrounding the relationship between individual and community. Relying on the assumptions of human behavior, Haneke slowly erodes the face of tradition and tranquility to show a darker unmentioned reality hiding in the shadows, one founded on the brutal bastardization of family and faith. So secrets and lies beget retribution, and revolting and revulsive acts come and go, inevitably saying more about the collective than the perpetrators committing them.

Bypassing standard narrative conventions, Haneke divulges symbols and themes by spending long passages of time with his many characters, inspecting their daily routines for gaps and fissures in morality, tying each with a specific act of indifference or guilt. And something is certainly amiss, as Haneke’s brilliantly poised camera catches glimpses of chilling menace in the corners of every frame. Whether it’s two older children being scolded by their preacher father, or a vengeful son hacking away at his employer’s lettuce patch, these actions feel fatefully connected to the cultural environment on display. The striking black and white visuals heighten every subtle movement and sound, framing characters in wide vistas flanked by trees and fields, hallowed by bleached out skies. Starkness lives and breathes in between the edits, whispering warnings to a community diving headfirst down an ideological rabbit hole.

While Haneke focuses on the subversion’s of adulthood, The White Ribbon achieves it’s most devastating dichotomy of horror and purity through the eyes of children, characters existing largely on the tragic periphery. These kids astutely watch their parents and neighbors go about their business, soaking in the wtinessed anger, aggression, and violence like water to a sponge, ultimately continuing the cycle of degradation. Their misguided and fragmented behavior proves the future is not bright for this town, and in turn Germany as a nation. And even though the initial assumptions of guilt planted in the horrific opening scenes are never completely unfounded, Haneke is more interested in the subtle decline of justice than solving the many specific crimes. Most of the motivations behind the many indiscretions are entirely familiar, lessening the impact of specifically heinous moments. But the overall mosaic artfully constructs fear and suffering on both a personal and epic level.

The White Ribbon begins and ends like a dream, told through haunted voice-over narration by the town’s mild-mannered teacher (Christian Friedel). It’s a last gasp of memory wrapped in uncertainty, but more than anything it’s a warning. The Teacher’s words drift into the either, lost in the cloudy haze of a massive historical event about to change the world, foreshadowing an even greater homegrown evil on the horizon. But Haneke’s telling examination of human and mother nature is far more complex than a simple line of terrible dominos falling into place. The White Ribbon confronts a terrible cycle of indifference, showing the seeds of national destruction sewn by the farmers, teachers, pastors, and parents themselves, infecting the essence of youthful compassion through apathy and fear, slowly circulating poison into the children’s moral water supply. This lethal cocktail is not specific to Germany, but universal in scope and potency, invariably festering for generations to come.

Best of the 2000’s: Discussion #7

– The following is the seventh of ten planned online discussions between MATCH CUTS and THE FILMIST regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.

THE FILMIST: The Fall was a film I’d first seen mentioned here and there online. I didn’t recognize the name in the director’s chair at first, but then I realized that it was the guy who’d done The Cell, and my interest gradually began to perk up. And – then, I didn’t hear about it for several months, until around August of 2008, after it had been released in theaters, when the reviews came pouring in – most of them good, a few of them middling. My brother and I made the long trek across town to the Angelika to see it, and – well, we weren’t disappointed. The Fall is the film that Salvador Dali – or, any other and better Surrealist artist – would have made if they’d had the funds and the resources. Constantly and intentionally dreamlike and lyrical, especially in it’s last half-hour – and, speaking of Dali, he also seems to be referenced visually quite a bit throughout the course of the film, in the red mask of the young girl and the structures in the desert.

MATCH CUTS: I found The Fall on DVD, mostly because I had heard nothing but negative reviews, and because I despised The Cell, but the story intrigued me. The Dali-esque visuals definitely come to mind, the strange use of scale and horizons really make the film interesting, but the opening sequence really stands as a beautiful testament to the deep tragedy in the film. Most films use slow motion to gratuitous effect, but this film seems to revel in the subtext of slow motion. Continue reading

Best of the 2000’s: #4

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf plays out like an endless nightmare tunneled through a constricting vision of the modern world slowly descending into chaos. Set mostly in the French countryside during some unmentioned national catastrophe, the film follows the Laurent family’s quest for survival, breaking down their struggle to an elemental level. As in most Haneke films ambiguity reigns, degenerating spaces through jarring cuts and sudden jumps in time. The film meticulously pulls back the everyday façade of human existence to unearth the inherent abuses and evils underneath. The apocalypse has never been this restrained or this horrifying. Continue reading

Funny Games (Haneke, 2008)

A part of me wants to dismiss Haneke’s near shot for shot remake outright, since the only difference I can muster between this second helping of terror and its original concerns the language being spoken (or the NASCAR playing on the television). Is there anything inherently American in the 2008 version that couldn’t be said about the 1997 original? Sure, the offscreen violence still overpowers and disturbs, but if you’ve already experienced this particular story, the end result is considerably less convincing a second time around. Maybe a repeat viewing is needed to explore the minute differences in execution (no pun intended). 

The Seventh Continent (Haneke, 1989)

Haneke’s first film and it sets up his now patented style and thematics right away; middle class worry, anger, monotony, and finally devastating tragedy. The long takes, tight framing, and no non-diagetic music all play a role, but with less psychological impact as some if his later films, namely Funny Games and Time of the Wolf.

Georg, Anna, and Evi are a seemingly happy family and Haneke shows us little to debunk this notion. Until the family reaches a decision (we don’t see this scene of course) to reject modern civilization. Their distress has been riding under the surface, them suffering, the viewer fruitlessly wondering why. The actions following their decison (I won’t divulge what happens) remain distrubing, even if the end result doesn’t have the impact the story deserves.

I found myself wanting to like The Seventh Continent more than I actually did. It’s harrowing at times, especially during the car wash scenes where the family, trapped in the steel frame of their car, watches the perfectly positioned cogs of modern technology wash/clense the sleak exterior around them, the underriding tension and distress almost unbearable.

But The Seventh Continent is extremely frustrating at other points. We never get to know this family as people, and while I believe that to be Haneke’s point (i.e. too far gone, immersed in modern day drudgery to have personalities), it doesn’t make for nearly as interesting picture as his latest film, Cache, which also deals with an apocalypse of sorts within a middle class family. Still, you can see the makings of a master waiting to develop and reveal his true identity.

Benny’s Video (Haneke, 1992)

Watching three early Haneke’s in a row reaffirms that style, or shall I say a deconstruction of style, overwhelms any concern with story. Benny’s Video comes across as pretentious, dry, and all too familiar. Maybe at the time of it’s release it shocked viewers with an extreme sense of apathy but now it just feels unimportant.

And for a film that’s trying so hard, it’s a failure at conjuring up any sort of commentary on youth violence. This seems like a warmup for the Haneke masterpieces to come. Benny’s Video and it’s protagonist could be seen as a prequel/origin story for the serial killers in Funny Games, a film that unlike his first two, is taut, menacing, and altogether masterful.

With Benny’s Video, like The Seventh Continent, Haneke seems to uncomfortable with pacing and story, choosing bland political critiques over human complexity. Both films are overlong, repetitive, the difference here being that Benny’s Video produces large amounts of tedium.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Haneke, 1994)

Interlocking stories of chance and coincidence feel dated and contrived by now, but Michael Haneke backs this structure with a deep concern for detachment, a theme worth discussing in our computer/Internet driven age. 71 Fragments jumps back an forth between multiple narrative storylines and seemingly real life news coverage of breaking international stories. The plot revolves around people detached from national identity, family, institutons, and sanity. They are all very different in terms of living situation and age, but all share a distinct malaise towards modern day existence.

Whether it’s the barriers of language, technology, or ideologies, these people appear emotionally on the fringe. But only one acts out, and the violence is sudden and without easy explanation. Haneke’s still camera charts these characters’ attempts to live and develop in a world engulfed by media, almost every scene containing a television, radio, music, or computer in seemless discourse with the living environment. We soak in information at an alarming rate, complicating issues of identity.

When finally left with only silence in our surroundings, Haneke sees a modern need to break apart, complicate, and manuever through a more familiar world of technology. His editing style dictates this apporach, cutting off in the middle of sentences, interrupting moments of solitude, playing with time to disrupt train of thought. A step up from the benign and blunt Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments is more interested in character, or the loss of character/control in our ever evolving attempt to put a number, price tag, and web address on every square inch of the planet’s physical and mental frontier.