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29 November 2009

A Far from Black and White Film

As predicted, the weather was so awful today that my run ended up being more reminiscent of boot camp: I was soaked through within minutes and then spent the next eighty minutes falling into puddles, jumping over bike gates to avoid puddles, slipping on piles of sodden leaves, slipping on mud and, more rarely, being splashed by cars. I felt much better after a hot shower but understandably, this experience didn't really leave me pining for the great outdoors--or even for leaving the flat at all.

However, I had booked a ticket for The White Ribbon, somewhat à contrecœur, and in what has been a rather budget-stretched month, I was loath to waste £7 so I dutifully trekked (or, rather, Tubed) down to the BFI to endure Michael Haneke's latest cinematic experience. I say "somewhat à contrecœur" because the other two Haneke films I've seen--Funny Games US and Caché--were immensely frustrating. Haneke spends both films carefully and methodically building up a fascinating mystery and then just leaves the viewers in the lurch at the end. I was really enjoying watching both of these films but the ending, or lack thereof, ruined it for me. I don't absolutely require for all loose ends to be tied up at the end of a film but without at least some explanation for the bizarre events of the film, I came away feeling immensely unsatisfied--anticipation was not the purest form of pleasure on this occasion.

I was expecting more of the same from The White Band, which is set a few months before the outbreak of World War One in a small German village where strange things (tragic "accidents", barn burnings, cabbage mutilation, child torture, and so on) have started to happen. Haneke almost had me at the credits because I was feeling very tired and the opening credits were rolled on one at a time in small, white letters on a black background with no music or sounds at all--I almost fell asleep. Luckily, I soon woke up when the black started to fade away into the stark white backdrop of a man riding on a horse in the countryside--not the only time when the startlingly white background caused me to rub my eyes during the film, which is shot entirely in black and white. The villagers--particularly the children--are mostly Aryan, with their blonde hair looking almost white on film; some always dress entirely in black, some have white aprons, some are made to wear the titular white ribbon to remind them of purity and innocence when their behaviour suggests that they might be in need of a reminder.

The film is narrated by the school teacher (or, given the voice, a much older version of him) in the German village and opens with the village doctor's horse tripping over a wire that has been hung between two trees. The doctor falls and badly hurts himself and is taken to the hospital in a nearby town. Following this, more strange accidents and incidents start occurring and the school teacher tries to get to the bottom of them, while also trying to win the heart--and the hand--of the nanny of the baronial family who employ about half of the village. The children are, for the most part, decidedly creepy--usually, they are Stepford-like with their, "yes, father; no, father" responses and the way they seem to be completely emotionless. Other times, they become very angry and violent. Many of the parents are no better and as the film progresses, we learn more about their true nature.

To some extent, The White Ribbon is more satisfying than Funny Games and Caché, in that while there is a certain amount of open-endedness and ambiguity, we learn enough about the villagers to be able put together some of the pieces and to explain what just happened and why. I still found it a little frustrating because I'd just sat through 2h30 worth of film (and only looked at the time once!) and so I felt I'd earned a little more in the way of resolution. With Haneke, though, this is likely as good as it gets. The movie was gripping throughout with the suspense and the intrigue being upped painstakingly slowly, although I felt that the few humorous or more light-hearted moments in the last hour verged on bathos. The acting was great too, particularly the creepy children. All in all, The White Ribbon was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting.

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