White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
A. O. Scott, the NY Times’ übercritic, is not happy. He says (and I quote): “…the 47th edition of New York cinephilia’s flagship event has already distinguished itself as the grimmest in memory,” and goes on to build a case against “festivalism,” admitting only many paragraphs later that the Festival’s slate “is, rather, a symptom of the divided, anxious state of American and indeed of global film culture.” But he concludes his argument with, “It’s a nonstop party, as long as we follow the party line.”
Well, here’s another take on the party: festivals are different every year because their lineup depends, at least in part, on what’s available that season, and also has to please many ticket buyers. Grim or not, this NYFF has, as always, some things for everyone. And in the real world, those somethings are not equal. Some are actually much better, or somewhat better, than others (we all have our opinions). Let’s start at the top:
Although I am among those who found Haneke’s The Piano Teacher both disturbing and unpleasant, his
White Ribbon is a masterpiece. It would seem that there was general agreement in high places, because the film was selected for the Festival’s opening night. (And, as of October 21, was Germany’s choice for Best Foreign Film nominee.) To begin with, for those of you whose eyes have grown dim from peering into iPhones at lo-res movies on tiny screens, do not miss this film! And see it in a theater, on a very, very big screen. It was shot in 35mm in color, then printed in black and white so glorious, so crammed with subtle variations of gray, so beautifully focused, lit, and framed, that it provides a visual high from the first scene. But it doesn’t stop there.
Haneke’s tale about a small town in Germany on the eve of World War One is revealed through the work of a brilliant cast, playing characters whose intertwined lives are chapters in a chilling morality play. Everyone knows everyone—the Baron and Baroness, the doctor, the minister, the farmer, and the young teacher whose narration frames the story. There are few secrets. Except for those behind a series of strange events. Repression is rampant, and no one escapes its short-, or long-term consequences—especially the children who figure so prominently in the action.
But it’s the way Haneke’s vision unfolds that puts White Ribbon in a class by itself. He uses a technique that’s mystifying at first—in which scenes appear to be a continuation of what preceded them. Only after a few moments do you realize that the scene is new, and the characters are not the same. In the end, this technique (so perfectly deployed) maintains tension and keeps the story moving. At two-and-a-half hours, the film never lags.
The period is meticulously recreated, and Haneke’s microscope offers a probing view of a town that has stepped out of a turn-of-the-century history book. The fields, the streets, the church, surround and stifle you despite their beauty. Women’s austere hair styles and clothing are almost identical, making visible the conformity they imply. Their rigid, upright posture completes the portrait of a society locked into old traditions that will be violently overturned a generation later.
So yes, see White Ribbon in a theater, then see it again. Perhaps the second time around you will be able to penetrate some of its mysteries, and take in all the details that make this film a work of art and power.
The Festival centerpiece, Precious is, in a way, a woman’s film (though directed, and written, by men–Lee Daniels and Geoffrey Fletcher). Its inspiration is the novel Push, written by Sapphire, who spent eight years teaching reading and writing to teenagers and adults in Harlem. The novel, and the film, reflect what Sapphire experienced.
Using hand-held cameras, harsh lighting, and urban music, it recreates the uptown of 1987 in which Clareece “Precious” Jones tries desperately to survive a monstrous life. Although light years away from the German dorf of White Ribbon, Precious’ city also surrounds you, and drags you into its mean streets, refusing to let you go until you join the fight for Precious’ survival. It’s a life lesson in priorities, and how to get them straight.
The cast is not only strong, but amazing: Mo’Nique (usually a high-energy comic), here plays a demon of a mother; Lenny Kravitz (rock musician) plays a male nurse; and Mariah Carey (trust me – you won’t recognize her!) plays a social worker. But the most amazing strength comes from the title character herself—played by newcomer and college student Gabourey Sidibe—whose stoic bravery remains the still center of the film.
Precious has been substantially Oprahfied (she’s one of the film’s executive producers), and has all of the broad strokes that one would expect. Okay, it’s a weeper. But it’s absolutely the real deal. Raw and overwhelming, and guaranteed to take you with it. Don’t even try to resist.