This was my first experience of both the director Michael Haneke's work, and watching blu-ray in black and white. Quite an experience, and one that is very hard to describe as it is a film that fits no one genre with any ease. The blu-ray in black and white is a revelation, the clarity of the photography a joy to behold. Some of the shots of the winter German landscape would grace most photographic art galleries. The choice of black and white is in keeping with what is a bleak and at times disturbing story. If like me you are one of those who like to see the good guys wearing the white hats and the bad guys wearing the black hats, then this is perhaps not the film for you. If you like to see the good guys win and the bad guys punished for their misdemeanours, then again this may not be to your tastes. If you like a nice musical score, forget it, as this film is totally devoid of one, although this again is appropriate. But although in all honesty the film did leave me a little cold and disturbed, I could not deny that it is compelling and powerful. It might even be called a classic, which is clearly what the director has set out to make.
The film is set in a small protestant community in Northern Germany just before the outbreak of World War One. The period detail it should be said is stunningly authentic. The community is presided over by the local Baron in a feudal style from his manor. Virtually all the local population are dependent on the estate for their livelihoods, much in the same way that Britain operated before the war. But strange and sinister events begin to happen in the village. The local doctor is injured in a fall from his horse, caused by a deliberately laid trip wire. The baron's small son is found beaten by canes. A downs syndrome child is tortured and nearly blinded. A cabbage patch is mown down with a vengeful scythe. In some cases the perpetrator is obvious, but in others this is not the case. The community is awash with suspicion and rumour. Children gather eerily together in creepy fashion. I was reminded of William Golding's disturbing novel "Lord of the Flies". The director makes a mockery of the old adage about working with children and animals. The children all give powerful performances. We look inside the private lives of the villagers, especially the pastor played brilliantly by Burghart Klaussner, who gives perhaps the outstanding performance. He dominates his family with a malevolent religious fervour, and makes his children wear the white ribbon as a sign of pure intentions after they have sinned. Some scenes are particularly disturbing although nothing is actually shown. Some people with higher levels of sensitivity may have difficulties with the implied child abuse scene. The story is narrated by the village teacher played by Christian Friedel, who conducts a rather quaint old fashioned romance with a young girl of the village. There is no traditional ending to this story!
The film is one that you can certainly read many things into, given the dramatic events in German history to follow. Personally, the most powerful image for me was that of the effects of a harsh environment and the cruelty of parents on the children, and the way this impacted on the community. It seems to echo the problems that we have with anti social behaviour across our country today. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the doors of the parents. There is a reference in the film to the bible verse 20.5 from Exodus in relation to idols "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me". This is a verse subject to much misinterpretation, but certainly parents have much to answer for! The film deservedly won the Palme d'or at Cannes. It is a film that I found difficult to like, but at the same time could not deny its brilliance. An immensely powerful and thought provoking film!
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