The White Ribbon (2009)

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First time with Haneke.

The film begins with the doctor tripping off his horse because a wire has been inexplicably tied between two trees. His departure to hospital is followed by the accidental death of a woman at a mill. These are importantly distinct in severity, mysteriousness, consequence, culpability: these gaps create imbalances that cause mistrust, accusations and unrest. The effects begin to precipitate down like a fanning domino chain, the two first causes like the fibonacci 1 1 that are spontaneous, apparently alike but contributive to exponential differences. TWR‘s first hour introduces this cascade, and I expected the whole film to be a sort of tumbling, Drane-like mathematical shower of uncanny and unknown malice.

But the village isn’t a house of cards: it is propped up by its own imbalances of authority, numbers, wealth and – most importantly – age. The doctor’s boy fears that his father’s disappearance is final; his older sister reassures him, saying that it is only temporary, like a winter flu. As the dark events begin to scar the villagers permanently this dichotomy is disrupted, but it’s suggested here that the village’s kids feel the gravity of these situations more acutely and perceptively. The adult world is rhythmic, governed by harvest work for the poor, holidays for the rich, and religious observances for all. The swing of the seasons brings respite through tradition until the deceased woman’s older son bitterly digs up the past, a mad reaper in a cabbage field.

The effects of the traumas have become subterranean; they sprout here and there with different consequences, while more unexplained horrors keep a building, macabre rhythm and slide the village towards a reckoning. The cast of characters is huge, and the film’s overriding theme – the perversion of innocence through punitive authority – takes on varied hues according to circumstances, creating scenes that themselves produce consequences that spill beyond their particular situations. Been listening to those Deleuze podcasts recently and definitely thinking of the town in terms of rhizomatic connectivity, the events as haecceities, nexuses of complex interactions. This woven interconnectedness constantly suggests TWR to be a text (also the teacher’s grave retrospective narration).

H also interweaves tonal shifts that are threaded together by this underlying fear of authority. It’s touching, funny, chilling, shocking, haunting, everything. Made a few notes about particular scenes and images (the doctor’s boy creeping around the house at night is terrifying; his disgusting father’s rejection of the housemaid’s affections suggest Winter Light, in connection with the pastor’s passing resemblance to Gunnar Björnstrand; the bitter farmer’s quiet suicide; the pastor’s perfect son bringing him a new bird after his daughter had murdered the old one) and contrasts (the way the doctor is introduced as a neutral victim and rapidly becomes truly vile vs the obviously disgusting pastor’s strange partial retribution with the vindication of his kids). But I mostly stopped writing after halfway. The suppression of the traumas’ consequences under the assertive system of the town did kill the pace for a while, which threw me off kilter, but it’s amazing to look back on and piece together. This really is perfect storytelling. It’s recognisably modern in style but distinctive in its confidence with the tonal shifts and unexplained mysteries. It’s as personal as a Sebald narrative but universal beyond the WWI context.

8

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