Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
by JOHN MARKS
In a Michael Haneke film, when two kids have knives and one has a whistle, it’s probably best to avert your eyes. Something bad is about to happen to the kid with the whistle.
And so it is in Haneke’s masterful The White Ribbon, though what happens to the kid with the whistle is nothing compared to what happens to everyone else in town. This is a story about a small German village on the eve of World War I, and Haneke has turned his eyes once again from the particulars of individual creepiness, as he did in Cache, to the larger canvas of historical repercussion.
The village teacher, who serves as our narrator, tells us from the start that what we are about to see presages the calamity of World War I, which killed millions of young European men, left millions of women widowed and children fatherless, finished off three empires and unleashed the forces of Fascism, National Socialism and Communism that would shape the world for the rest of the century.
Haneke is telling us our own story, in other words, however unfamiliar the details might appear. That’s always been one of his gifts.
Despite the flat narration, the movie never signals that we are watching the equivalent of a historical treatise. On the contrary, the Doom Of Europe feels nauseatingly intimate in the unspooling of a series of small, cruel events in a place where everyone once felt at ease. Some of the children are forced to wear white ribbons to remind them of their innocence, hence the movie’s title, but as viewers we know the ribbons will be futile. The children can’t possibly be innocent. The grown-ups have seen to it.
The storytelling is stark and near perfection. First, the doctor falls off his horse. Then a woman falls through the floor at the old mill and dies. A farmer destroys a field of cabbage. A child goes missing. One by one, as these events transpire, the anxiety in the village–and the audience–amounts. Haneke melds the one and the another, and before long a truly horrible feature of the story becomes clear.
We are as trapped in the cycle of decimation as the people onscreen. We are in the dark, too, and as news of the war finally arrives, releasing the village from its own demons into the wider concourse, we feel of the horrific relief of knowing that the worst of all possible outcomes has just resolved the plot. Annihilation is the deus ex machina.
Haneke has always been superb at torment. In the original Funny Games, he gave tennis whites a twist of Mengele. In The Piano Teacher, the tired old subject of sado-masochism became vivid again, because the protagonist, played with deep iciness by Isabelle Huppert, seemed to live and die on the edge of a knife, which she eventually plunges into her own flesh.
These were frosty, immaculate works of art, but they had the tick-tock of Hitchcockian machines. With Time Of The Wolf, quite suddenly, something changed in the atmosphere of the Haneke experience. That movie, so tense as it depicted a version of the end of civilization, actually offered hope, and with the advent of hope, bizarrely, a new realism seeped into the work. On the back of realism came history.
In Cache, the director used his gifts to unearth an unmentionable past, specifically the atrocities committed by the French during the Algerian War. The plot moved to the rhythm of pickaxes at an archeological dig.
The White Ribbon amplifies this tendency. Instead of finding ourselves in a comfortable French present, wafted back on coffee steam and nightmare to secrets that we’d rather not face, we’re placed at the epicenter of crime and forced to work our way out. The chill comes when we realize that the maze leads us right back to ourselves.
This village is damned, Haneke’s movie insinuates, but only if you say so.
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