Saturday, January 30, 2010

White Ribbon: A German Children's Story

Generally speaking, if a foreign language film gets much play in the US, it's going to be pretty good. We are monoglots with extreme prejudice. (I don't find this a condemnation of the USA; we're monoglots because we can be, and any other group with that luxury would take to it just as readily as we do.) It takes a Das Boot or a La Vita E Bella to get our butts in the chair (and even then, a lot of us insist on dubbing).

When I heard that White Ribbons (the title actually translates to The White Ribbon - A German Children's Story but I can see why the distributors didn't want to use that) had won a Globe and was being praised up-and-down, I seized on it as a likely way to break the award-season doldrums. (This year has been particularly uninspired.)

A little hasty on my part, unfortunately. Da Weisse Band was directed by Michael Haeneke, who is a critic's darling and, well, you have to know that he directed one of his movies going in, or you're probably going to be disappointed.

This reminded me heavily of one of his earlier films, Caché, which is about a French couple that's being mysteriously filmed. The films are being sent to them, the (rather despicable) hero runs around tracking down people he's pissed off in the past, and the general level of menace increases until—well, until nothing, really. That's sort of the problem.

You start to engage with the movie as a mystery, as a thriller, but it never goes anywhere. Because it's neither a mystery nor a thriller, it's a metaphor. It's a metaphor for how crappily the French treated the Algerians, something portrayed excellently (and literally) in the contemporary film Indigenes.

This can really piss you off. You're not being entertained, you're being instructed.

Which brings us to White Ribbon.

Same deal. Here we have a story that should be exciting, thrilling, suspenseful and creepy, but it really just comes off as creepy. Any actual excitement or enjoyable aspect is meticulously stripped out. Sort of like an Oliver Stone movie, where if you actually start having a good time, the movie's gonna turn around and slap you for being so shallow.

Believe it or not, I don't mean that to be condemnatory. Some people like going to serious, joyless films. Most of them seem to be art critics. And, honestly, I can do that if I'm aware of it going in. And I did pick up on it soon enough.

The Boy was irritated, though.

Basically, the story is that bad things are happening in this small town in Germany. Some are accidental, but some are very clearly deliberate. As the tale unfolds, we get a closer look at the characters.

The widowed town doctor, is the movie's first victim, when someone strings a wire between two fence posts and trips his horse on his daily ride. We learn that he's a sexual deviate who abuses the midwife who has taken care of him since his wife's demise. (And that he was no better to his dead wife.)

Oh, hell, I can't even bring myself to list the litany of horrible things everyone is doing to everyone else. The narrator and his love interest are at least decent people, but apparently the only decent ones in the village.

It becomes apparent soon enough—like, from the opening scene—that the children are behind all the horrible "accidents". They don't restrict themselves to taking revenge on the bad adults, mind you. They happily do bad things to each other and even babies and, in that crowning glory of storytelling, a Down's Syndrome kid. (Don't you love it when movies feature abuse of the handicapped?)

Of course, we don't see any of this. What we see is the slow, plodding narrator (a schoolteacher) figuring out what's going on. All the action occurs off-screen, and we're left to view the horrible after-effects.


OK, I'm not gonna beat the guy up for making an unpleasant movie because that's clearly what he had in mind. Mission accomplished. I am going to beat him up a little because the movie, which takes place on the eve of WWI, is meant to be insightful as to the rise of Nazi-ism.

In that regard, I think it's a wash. I mean, it's a made up story with made up characters, and while I have no doubt that there was plenty of sexual perversion in Germany before the War (as everywhere else), and that they were perhaps indulgent of their children (though my experience says "seen and not heard"), I don't think it makes for an insightful storyline.

But it's really my fault: A bit more research and I would've connected the director with his past works, but I'm not so up on foreign films that I expect to recognize directors.

Anyway, if you're into flat, nasty, long stories of decadence, this is your movie.

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