A Chilling Masterpiece

The White Ribbon – a disturbing masterpiece that chilled me to the bone.

I had not planned to post this, but after (finally!) seeing The White Ribbon yesterday I couldn’t help it, just had to pen my thoughts. This is not a synopsis, just personal impressions that may not make all that much sense unless you’ve actually seen the film. But perhaps they will make you want to see it…

I’ve not seen any film by Michael Haneke before, but if they’re all like this one, I’m a fan. Masterfully directed and acted. Outstanding photography, black-and-white images which, just like the complete lack of music, were a perfect fit to the psychological (f)rigidity of the people. A completely different pace from what we are used to these days. Slow, sometimes very slow, but not a single second without anything “happening” or with “just visuals” was just that; every one of those moments had a meaning and conveyed a message.

The adults were so unbelievably cold to their children. I felt frozen inside, sometimes wanted to shout “come on, show a sign of affection, hold your child, acknowledge the love he shows you!” But it never, ever happened.

The only adults who were a little warmer were the midwife and perhaps the estate manager’s wife – and the teacher and his Eva, but then she was almost still a child herself, and he not only looked but really seemed younger than his 31 years – and even at 31 he was a lot younger than all the other adults. He and Eva, they were a ray of sunshine and genuine warmth, warmth one craved for and lapped up hungrily in this atmosphere of psycho-cruelty.

The children…  The much-quoted resemblance to Village of the Damned is obvious without being a copy, because the danger emanating from them was human, not alien. I am tempted to say that when they were chilling, they had good reason to be that way. They didn’t know anything else from their parents.

*SPOILER ALERT* All the more touching to see the loving kindness in the doctor’s daughter – a love that was tinged with so much sadness when she looked at her little brother, and that took such a shocking twist when the true nature of her relationship with her father was revealed. *END SPOILER ALERT*

And yet, underneath all this rigor, the plaited or plastered hair and buttoned-up dresses or shirts, these children were not so very different from “modern” children. Underneath it all, they showed the same fears and yearnings and rebellious traits as children of today. They just channelled these feelings differently.

The characters, all of them, adults and children, were at the same time so foreign and so authentic, so genuine and convincing. Outstanding performances by all, absolutely all of the actors. How on earth did they prepare for their parts? This film shows a time that is not so very far away and yet feels so much more distant from our modern thinking and feeling than say, the Middle Ages or the future – as we see them in movies or read about them in books. At least I feel that way.

Does this film “explain” Germany and Germans at the beginning of the 20th century? Perhaps it offers some help in understanding them, but for me that is not the real importance or impact of this film. Perhaps that’s because I am German and have had my share of German history studies.

I must admit, though, I felt weird when I saw the doctor’s house, which looks almost identical to that of my grandmother in Northern Germany, and the priest’s study, which reminded me so much of that of my grandfather, who was also a priest. Both were born around 1905, i.e. were as old as the children in this film. I wonder what their childhood was like. It is too late to ask them, they’re both dead; and I wonder what they would’ve told me. Whether they would have been like the “unreliable narrator”, as Philip French calls the teacher in his review in the Guardian . I am just glad they turned out to be warm and kind people.

I can’t believe that within a week I saw two films that could not be more different – Avatar and The White Ribbon – and was blown away by both in equal measure but in completely different ways.

And so I end this rambling spill of a post.

Okay, the next post really will be about “The Amphibian Film – a Teutonic Speciality?”



Filed under film reviews

6 responses to “A Chilling Masterpiece

  1. Margit

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed The White Ribbon. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and I can’t wait to watch it again! I love how it wasn’t just about what you saw on the screen but what happened off-screen – in other rooms and behind closed doors, so even though you didn’t see most of the violence but knew about it, it kept this odd sense of threat and tension going throughout the film. Brilliant!
    Haven’t seen Avatar yet, kind of dreading it. I’ve not gone along with the whole 3D parade, I don’t think technical gimmicks make films better (you still have to have a good story), so I’m not sure if I would like it.
    But can’t wait to see what Haneke does next. Looks like I’m a art house geek. 🙂

    • True, the “behind closed door” thing was creepy – and so true of those times. There is so much in that film I think you have to see it several times to “get” it all…

      As for Avatar – I just love big & spectacular… 😉

  2. Excellent review of the film Vera. It sounds captivating and I doubt if it will come here, but I’ll do my best to keep an eye on the art house movie circuit in case it does. Forgive my ignorance but is it in English? Or are there subtitles? Sounds like a hugely complex lavish story. Delicious!

    And yes I must also see Avatar Margit. Not a fan of CGI but I’ve had to get used to it. Two sons are great fans. One of them thought this was the best film ever. The other says it was just a classic hero’s journey and not very inventive. Okay he’s the smarty pants one doing Classics. And my daughter said it was “okay…” Hmm. I’ll have to go and see it for myself as the review team I sent out was mixed!

    But well done on writing about The White Ribbon Vera.


    • I hope it “travels” in German with subtitles – always prefer that anyway, but in this particular instance hearing the German actors speak, their preciseness and inflection, is an integral part of the atmosphere.

  3. Well recommended, Vera. I’ve had the script for a while but haven’t yet got round to reading it. I’ll hopefully carve some spare time out of life to both read and see it soon. There are many films that come round that I’m happy just to read the script, but I know I want to do both with this one.

    RE: recommendations, The Thing Around Your Neck arrived the other day. Look forward to having a nose. 🙂

    Margit, go see Avatar! I shared your dread until I saw the trailer (in 3D @BFI IMAX) and was suitably excited. It’s obviously going to be about THE gimmick, but it looks a lot of fun in the flesh. C’mon, pop down to London and I’ll treat you!

    • I have the script as well (but haven’t read it yet), or rather the English translation – which seems a bit weird… can’t find German scripts on the net but their translation! Happy reading & watching. 🙂

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