Friday, January 29, 2010

Die Farbe der Unschuld

I didn't want to go see Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" ("Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte"). Haneke's the sort of sensationalistic cinematic enfant terrible I generally avoid (though I thought "Caché" was brilliant), and I rarely agree with the jury awarding the Palme D'Or at Cannes. But I did see it (it was supposed to be with a friend but he was under the weather). And more surprisingly, I appreciated it. It's a portrait of a north German village on the eve of WW1 where unexplained acts of violence happen (don't expect the film to solve the mystery for you), with striking images with the feel of old photographs and a measured pace (very different from the frenzied preview). What stays with you, as your efforts to resolve its questions reach uneasy stalemate, is the opacity of faces - there are many portrait shots of faces the likes of which one didn't think could be found any more - especially the faces of children, whose innocence Haneke regards with an almost Augustinian suspicion. Americans are inevitably seeing this as a film about the roots of Nazism but I think it's more and less than that. It's a depiction of the vestigial feudalism and patriarchy of premodern Europe more generally, but, as a Haneke film, implies misanthropically that it's naive to think evil historically contingent. This uncertainty may be read as shallow rather than deep as an account of human nature or particular historical periods, but as an aesthetic work the film seems to me valuably to capture the moral opacity of the pasts about which we tell our stories of transcendence, redemption, survival.

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