Until recently it felt like my brain had begun to atrophy. It was my own fault for living on a cinematic diet of derivative mainstream drivel – the three hour reworking of Pocahontas as a videogame without the interaction generally known as Avatar, Oscar-winning “Best Hollywood military recruitment drive movie” The Hurt Locker, and a slew of effects-laden apocalyptic rotters that left me hoping that the world really would come to an end – and sooner rather than later, before Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay get behind the camera again. I only have myself to blame – no one held a gun to my head and forced me to watch this dross (leaving aside for the time being the nature of the market and how our shelves are oversaturated with Hollywood products – now is not the time for a rant about cultural imperialism), but it’s too easy to get complacent and watch whatever’s readily available, and unfortunately that tends to be, well, shite. It’s one of the ironies of art and entertainment that the genuinely innovative and exciting material tends to sink into obscurity; you have to dive through a layer of scum and effluvia before you can get to the gems.
Michael Haneke’s 2009 Palme D’Or winner Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon) is one such gem worth delving into. Set in the fictitious provincial German village of Eichwald in the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, the story centres around several mysterious, violent incidents: a wire is stretched between two trees causing the village doctor to fall from his horse; the son of a Baron is cruelly beaten; a handicapped boy is mutilated. Haneke is no stranger to themes of violence and the origin of evil; he has earned a reputation as a filmmaker who casts an unflinching gaze on the flaws in society and the abberations in human behaviour these conditions give rise to – manifestations of psychotic impulses, sadism and repression. Das weiße Band is perhaps his most nuanced exploration of these concepts, dealing as it does with the broad range of characters who inhabit the village. By comparision, Funny Games had two psychopaths and the family they terrorize its central focus; Caché chose a married couple as its central characters on which to build a meticulous study of guilt, responsibility and race. With Das weiße Band, however, the large ensemble cast allows Haneke to consider the social, religious and interpersonal conditions which lead to violence and repression with a much broader scope.
In the village of Eichwald Haneke has crafted a microcosm for an emotionally broken and repressive pre-Nazi Germany; a place where God-fearing, dogmatic Puritcanical Christianity and authoritarian masculinity combine to foster a community of fear, hypocrisy and lovelessness. The pastor – traditionally the “moral core” of such a community – is so blinded by the dogma of his faith that he deprives his children of love and replaces it with punishment, tying his son up in bed at night to deal with his “improper touching”; the village doctor’s outwardly kindly manner masks incestuous urges and a callous disregard for his doting lover; the Baron, showing a pretence of magnanimity towards the villagers, is blind to his wife’s unhappiness and disillusionment with the life they lead. Only the schoolteacher – who provides the audience with a voice over monologue and sets the events in context – functions with some degree of emotional balance, and even then his burgeoning relationship with the young Eva is somewhat tentative and cautious, marred by the conventions of society and sense of propriety. Beneath the religious façade and the carefully maintained social hierarchy lies a community laden with guilt, deception and cruelty – and it is the children of the village who ultimately suffer the effects of this tension and anxiety. As the generation that went on to lead Germany during the dark days of fascism, the ominous implications are clear.
Despite the “whodunnit?” aspects of the narrative, Das Weiße Band doesn’t offer the viewer any tidy resolutions or convenient plot twists. Haneke’s films are notorious for shirking the conventions of storytelling often found in cinema – as he says himself, “My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.” Das Weiße Band more than fulfils this criteria, the challenging and complex subtexts acted with some intense and impressive performances, most notably by the children, who put in performances equal to their adult co-stars. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Christian Berger, who studied Sven Nykvist’s cinematography work for Ingmar Bergman, equally the film as a whole compares to Bergman’s films on religion, particularly those which explored the silence of God. In that respect Das Weiße Band could also be viewed as a companion piece to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s studied masterpiece Ordet, which also explores the effects of religion on an isolated rural community. Bleak and uncompromising in its vision yet infinitely rewarding on numerous levels, Das Weiße Band is a major work – perhaps Haneke’s finest – and stands as a commendable contribution to that rare but appreciable strand of intelligent, carefully constructed, measured, analytical style of film making. It made my brain work again, at least.