The Times: What a bag of twats

Friday November 20th 2009

One criticism often leveled at blogs (movie-related or otherwise) is that they are too eager to paraphrase, quote and reprint articles from print media instead of commissioning first-hand journalism by qualified writers. This is a fair point, which makes it all the more hypocritical, pathetic and arrogant when The Times decides it can edit down and reprint Edgar Wright’s tribute to Edward Woodward without permission, credit to the source or any indication that it has been abridged. The unmistakable implication was that The Times had commissioned Edgar Wright to write the piece.

[The Times reprint can be found here, but now shows an unabridged and credited version.]

In response, we present here a review of The White Ribbon, written exclusively for Ultra Culture by The Sunday Times‘ resident film critic, Cosmo Landesman:

Why do so many white, middle-class European film fans love the writer/director Michael Haneke and his tales of affluent lives infected with guilt and battered by violence? He seems to excite their moral masochism and arouse their hidden anxieties — tickling their sense of post-imperial guilt with films such as Hidden, or their fears of youth with Benny’s Video and Funny Games. While middle England has the Daily Mail, art-house audiences have Haneke to scare them with tales of a world gone to the dogs.

His latest film, The White Ribbon, is set in a rural German village a year before the outbreak of the first world war. It’s a place where you’d imagine that workers, women and children know their place, and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. The film’s narrator, however, wants to tell us about a series of strange events that occurred in this village when he was a young teacher there.

It all began the day when somebody set up a trip wire to bring down the local doctor (Rainer Bock) as he rode his horse back home. The whole village wonders: who could possibly do such a thing? Then a farmer’s wife who works for the baron of the village (Ulrich Tukur) is killed in an accident on his property. Her son blames the baron, and in a rage destroys his cabbage patch.

Haneke slowly builds up the mystery, gently nudging the audience into a state of unsettling uncertainty. We see a small group of children — all pale, and looking like kids from Village of the Damned — turning up at the homes of the victims. Are they there to offer comfort or secretly crow?

For Haneke, home is where the real horrors are. The village pastor (Burghart Klaussner) beats two of his children for being late and forces them to wear white ribbons as a reminder of the need for innocence and purity. The strange incidents become more blatant and brutal. The baron’s young son is found suspended upside down, having been whipped. A retarded boy is brutally beaten. A mysterious fire breaks out. A young teenage girl is molested by her father.

Haneke’s film is shot in black-and-white, but has the pallid, icy greyness of an illness. It’s austere, free from narrative fat or stylistic frippery. Suspicion seeps through the village and into the minds of the audience. So, as we watch the teacher (Christian Friedel) try to woo 17-year-old Eva (Leonie Benesch) — a nanny who works for the baron — we wonder when this decent man will do something disgusting.

The White Ribbon takes the form of a whodunnit, but, this being a Haneke film, you can be certain of one thing: you’ll never be certain of anything. What emerges is a kind of cycle of abuse and retaliation. The baron’s workers and the abused children of the village fight back with acts of petty cruelty and outright brutality. Theirs is the payback of the powerless. The film’s violent incidents reach their climax off screen: the villagers receive the news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated, lighting the fuse for the first world war.

There’s no denying that The White Ribbon has a dramatic power that comes from fine performances. As a simple mystery, it is fairly engrossing, but uninspired. You can admire The White Ribbon, but who could love it?

Haneke’s film has higher aspirations than mere entertainment. It’s an exploration of the totalitarian mind — how it is formed and how it finds expression in extremist groups. His screenplay, however, lacks insight: it simply regurgitates the familiar progressive view of patriarchy, family life, religion and sexual repression as weapons of social control and domination.

He suggests that repression produces a people psychologically ripe for extremism. In other words, what we see in this world of farmers is the seeds of fascism being sown. Brutal fathers produce children who will kill for the fatherland. The film’s subtitle is “A German Children’s Story”.

This link with the Nazis is never made explicit, but nothing is ever explicit in Haneke. He knows, though, that the specificity of the German setting will lead audiences to make this link. I know your parents “f*** you up”, as Philip Larkin once put it, but, really, to the point of committing genocide?

Cosmo, this is shit. Can you try again and get back to us when you’re done? Thanks. Close the door on your way out.