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The White Ribbon (#110 of 10)

New York Film Festival 2012: Amour and Not Fade Away

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New York Film Festival 2012: <em>Amour</em> and <em>Not Fade Away</em>
New York Film Festival 2012: <em>Amour</em> and <em>Not Fade Away</em>

The key scene in Amour comes during the film’s second hour, in a scene in which Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to desperately to shield his concerned daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), from seeing her mother (Emmanuelle Riva) in her dying state. In response to her increasingly frenzied demand that she see her, Georges says, “None of all that deserves to be shown.” He eventually relents and apologizes for the concealment, but in that one line of dialogue, one can grasp the unmistakable touch of the film’s director, Michael Haneke: Georges may be afraid to confront the horrors of his wife’s slow death, but Haneke will surely force all of us in the audience to confront it, in all its agonizing ugliness.

If you’re looking for empathetic humanism in the contemplation of aging and dying, á la Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow or Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, you won’t find it in Haneke’s carefully composed frames, ruthlessly prolonged takes, and generally detached stance. Amour plays like a dissection more than anything else, and however one reacts to it depends almost entirely on the emotional resources the individual viewer brings to it. Haneke, as usual, isn’t interested in holding your hand in that way.

The Conversations: Michael Haneke

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The Conversations: Michael Haneke
The Conversations: Michael Haneke

Ed Howard: It isn’t very fashionable to be a moralist in art these days. Films that deal with moral issues in a direct way are often tagged, rightly or not, as preachy and didactic. So in a way Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is an anomaly, a director who unapologetically has a definite moral agenda that he’s been exploring for over 20 years now, closer to 40 if one considers the TV work he made in the ’70s and ’80s before embarking on his feature film career in 1989. Not that Haneke himself would probably consider himself a moralist—he’s consistently said that he wants his films to ask questions but not necessarily answer them—but whether his films are polemical or simply explore these issues in more ambiguous ways, there is a undoubtedly a core of forceful moral ideas about politics, media, and human relationships that runs through his entire oeuvre.

In this conversation, we’ll be discussing most of Haneke’s feature films, from his early “glaciation trilogy” (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), made in his native Austria, to his brutal thriller deconstruction Funny Games, to the films he’s made in France (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Caché) and his return to Austria for the harrowing parable The White Ribbon. It’s a consistently provocative and challenging body of work, and consistently bleak as well, something that’s only reenforced by revisiting all of the director’s films in a condensed period of time. But what’s not often acknowledged is the thread of hope that also runs through much of Haneke’s work, because being a moralist means not only documenting the evils of the world but presenting at least a slim hopefulness that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.

Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Cinematography

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Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Cinematography

As evidenced by recent colorless contenders like Good Night, and Good Luck and The White Ribbon, the Academy rarely passes up the chance to gush over black-and-white lensing. And since they’re not about to toss a bone to The Turin Horse, The Artist’s Guillaume Schiffman will surely be nominated here, an inevitability that, unlike some other impending nods, will be more about formal fundamentals than the film’s overall dominance. The cinematographer to beat, however, is most certainly Emmanuel Lubezki, whose tireless, all-consuming work in The Tree of Life has already netted him trophies from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Broadcast Film Critics. Lubezki’s win from the latter body was shared with War Horse’s Janusz Kamiński, who, despite being dissed by the American Society of Cinematographers (they shrewdly gave his spot to Hoyte van Hoytema for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), will likely see his throwback tableaux and battles royal compete in the big race.

Oscar 2010 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

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Oscar 2010 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2010 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

We’re down to the wire, folks, and we’ve been saving some of the more contentious races for last, including this one, a category where as much as four films stand a reasonable chance at winning. Though The Hurt Locker has practically matched No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire in guilds-hogging mileage, in something of an upset, the American Society of Cinematographers opted for The White Ribbon’s fascist black-and-white textures instead. This is no game changer, as Oscar has shown no particular fondness for grayscale since the color and black-and-white cinematography categories merged in 1967 (Schindler’s List is the only black-and-white film to have won since then, and even that one has a little red in it), only a confirmation that the race here (and elsewhere) remains a nail-biter between The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and Inglourious Basterds.

Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

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Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)
Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

Ben Begins:

Just this week I watched and reviewed Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and in my review I referred to Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery (1948). Now I am commenting on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film, Le Corbeau (1943)—which another reviewer has called a “distant cousin” to The White Ribbon—and which makes me think of Shirley Jackson yet again; this time, her short story, The Possibility of Evil (1965). I categorized The White Ribbon as a “poison-in-the-well” piece. Others may or may not find this categorization convincing, but there can be no debate that Le Corbeau is a poison-in-the-pen piece.

As with Jackson’s story, the plot has to do with an individual anonymously sending hateful gossip to all and sundry in town in order to satisfy what can only be a nefarious purpose. The crucial difference between the story and the film, however, is that the audience knows from the outset who the culprit is in the former but only finds out at the very end of the latter. Jackson’s is a critical character study that lays bare a sociopath who perversely sees herself as a righteous pillar of the community. Clouzot’s is a whodunit mystery that would be trite if not for its penetrating investigation of parochial hypocrisy and the dark underbelly of those next door neighbors we thought were nice…but little did we know.

Oscar 2010 Winner Predictions: Foreign Language

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Oscar 2010 Winner Predictions: Foreign Language
Oscar 2010 Winner Predictions: Foreign Language

In a recent article for the The New York Times, Dennis Lim wrote: “There was a time when the Academy Award for best foreign-language film reflected the state of world cinema: Fellini films won back-to-back Oscars in the mid 1950s, as did Bergman films in the early ’60s. But the category has come to suggest a peculiar gulf between Academy opinion and the tastes of critics and audiences alike.” Ever since AMPAS put this category’s oddball selection committee in lockdown as punishment for their dire string of nominees throughout much of the 90s and early aughts, the quality of the nominees since then has arguably improved, even if the spoils continue to go to the namby-pambiest of films. We know this (it’s why we predicted a win for The Lives of Others over Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006), but try telling that to those who are knee-jerkingly pegging The White Ribbon for this award now that Michael Haneke’s film has a Golden Globe to bookend its Palm d’Or.

Understanding Screenwriting #40: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Sherlock Holmes, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #40: <em>Police, Adjective</em>, <em>The White Ribbon</em>, <em>Invictus</em>, <em>Sherlock Holmes</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #40: <em>Police, Adjective</em>, <em>The White Ribbon</em>, <em>Invictus</em>, <em>Sherlock Holmes</em>, & More

Coming up in this column: Police, Adjective, The White Ribbon, Invictus, Eric Rohmer and Natalie Carter, Sherlock Holmes, In Which We Serve, O. Henry’s Full House, How I Met Your Mother, but first:

Fan mail: Since this is the first column I have written since we moved over to Slant, I want to welcome any new readers we have picked up. When I started the column in August 2008, I said that the purpose of the column was to Bring The Gospel of the Importance of Screenwriting to the Heathen of New York City. I must say the Heathen have been very hospitable, and usually weigh in with interesting comments. I notice that so far there have been no comments on US#39, which I hope is just a temporary glitch, because the comments from readers make the column a lot more fun for me, even when the readers give me a hard time about something I said. So log in, folks. And here’s some stuff you can log in about:

Police, Adjective (2009. Written by Corneliu Porumboiu. 113 minutes)

Time, Romanian style: I was a big fan of Porumboiu’s 2006 film 12:08 East of Bucharest, which deals with a group of Romanians recalling how they were all involved in the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989. The film ends with a spectacular sequence. No, not a recreation of the revolution, but a long scene of a television talk show in which three of the characters we have followed discuss which of them got involved when and which should really be considered hangers-on of the revolution. Porumboiu, who directed, just sets his camera down and looks at the trio in almost a single take as they rewrite their own and others’ history. The sequence is typical of what is called the Romanian New Wave, which includes such films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007). All three of those films, as well as Police, Adjective, play around with the prolonging of time. The Romanians are not the only ones of course. Jonathan Romney in the February 2010 issue of Sight & Sound calls the films that play with time in this way “Slow Cinema,” and he gives several examples, none of them Romanian. American films, with a few exceptions, try to move as quickly as possible, but the Romanians are perfectly willing to let a film or a sequence run not only in real time, but in longer than real time, if such a thing is possible. It can be frustrating for viewers used to American tempi, but it can also be hypnotic.

Poisoned Well (of Truth?): The White Ribbon

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Poisoned Well (of Truth?): The White Ribbon
Poisoned Well (of Truth?): The White Ribbon

Ben Begins:

Poison in the well. I don’t know if this qualifies as its own genre or a trope or whathaveyou, but I have to classify The White Ribbon as a poison-in-the-well film. I can distinguish this from plague-upon-the-land, which draws on causative metaphysical force, and something’s-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark, which also does so but only in passing to focus on social corruption directly; yet both rest on the theme of perverted Nature, what one theology calls “sin.”

The White Ribbon is completely past all this, thoroughly modern, if you will. I’m not sure if it would be correct to say that it is a critique of authoritarian political power—the patriarchy in the family, the church, and the vestiges of the feudal manor—but it is strictly sociological. And the fact that the film ends with the outbreak of WWI is surely not trivial to its meaning. Full-out and without doubt, the topic is a terrorized society. And it is terrorized by itself. There’s poison in the well.

Who put it in? The plot of The White Ribbon asks this question but does not answer it. All the horrible incidents that take place are never explained. Who committed the crimes remains an unsolved mystery. But the lack of forensic resolution in the film is not an invitation to dwell in the mystery for its own sake. This is not an Agatha Christie conundrum lacking a final scene. The point is that the town only has one well and everyone is drinking from it. What matters is the poison they have all ingested.

The brutal and shocking things that happen are certainly that. But their occurrence is the epitome and not the essence of what is going on. They are the fullest manifestation of the loveless lives lived by each and every person in the program; well, just about, and more on the exception below. It’s a festival of mutual abuse, contempt, disgust, suspicion—all the passions are negative. And they are revealed after much passionless, nearly soul-less going-through-the-motions. You tagged The White Ribbon as Fanny and Alexander (how could you!) meets The Tin Drum (fair enough). I offer: The Crucible meets Sátántangó.

No Final Solution: The White Ribbon & No Country for Young Dissenters: Police, Adjective

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No Final Solution: <em>The White Ribbon</em> & No Country for Young Dissenters: <em>Police, Adjective</em>
No Final Solution: <em>The White Ribbon</em> & No Country for Young Dissenters: <em>Police, Adjective</em>

After viewing Michael Haneke’s masterpiece The White Ribbon, I came to the conclusion that Haneke is my favorite director of the past decade. From 2001’s The Piano Teacher on he’s consistently proven himself not only as a filmmaker merely to watch, but as a director to argue about akin to Lars von Trier and Roman Polanski (before the cinematic debate turned personal). Like von Trier, Haneke trains his cold lens on people desperate to make order out of mayhem. And in a way, Haneke is an anthropological Polanski, forever concerned with the evil we can’t see, with that which lies beyond the frame. He wants us to hear the words left out of the script, to feel the heaviness of absence—to ponder that which is missing.

Toronto International Film Festival 2009: The White Ribbon, A Serious Man, & Up in the Air

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Toronto International Film Festival 2009: <em>The White Ribbon</em>, <em>A Serious Man</em>, & <em>Up in the Air</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2009: <em>The White Ribbon</em>, <em>A Serious Man</em>, & <em>Up in the Air</em>

The White Ribbon: Ever wonder about the ancestors of the murderous jocks from Funny Games? Michael Haneke time travels to rural Germany on the cusp of WWI to find the answer, or, rather, to make the audience’s collective skin crawl at the question. Something of a distant Teutonic relative to H.G. Clouzot’s caustic Le Corbeau, the story traces the “horror and perplexity” contaminating a small village after a series of mysteriously interconnected events inexorably suggests the oppressive rot lurking under the townspeople’s unsmiling, puritanical façade and spreading into the next generation. (Shot in monochromatic tones peculiarly reminiscent of Dreyer’s Gertrud, it’s Haneke’s most visually polished picture yet, though the buzz of flies seeking decay is never far.) Unfolding like a finely wrought adaptation of a sprawling, detail-rich novel, the film showcases Haneke’s undeniable technical mastery and is thankfully light on the filmmaker’s patented hectoring shocks. The lingering feeling, however, is ultimately less of a portrait of encroaching dread than of a Children of the Corn prequel played as rigid thesis.