The gathering storm

The White Ribbon, or Das weisse band, is a quite remarkable film. (What’s also remarkable is that, without any planning or foreknowledge, I arrived at the Curzon Mayfair and bought a single ticket to the 1.3o showing, and who should appear behind me, but my old showbiz friend The Fast Show‘s Simon Day, also about to purchase a single ticket for The White Ribbon. So we sat together. At one stage, I saved his seat for him, which means that if anybody had sat down next to me, I could have said, “There’s someone sitting there, mate.”) If anything, The White Ribbon could be retitled The Slow Show. Set in a Bavarian village in 1913, it is like a severe, black-and-white Heimat, except it takes place across just the one year rather than 81, and plays out in two hours rather than 53. Two is long enough.

Directed with incredible control and poise by Michael Haneke, whose interest seems to be in the repressive, prurient nature of a tight-knit community, especially one governed by feudal hierarchy and fear of God and the flesh, it is still something of a departure from the contemporary settings of his best known work, Hidden, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. But such is the sense of isolation in this tiny, rural barony, it might almost be said to be timeless were it not for the narrator’s references to the gathering storm clouds of war and the eventual flashpoint of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. I guess it’s about old certainties being eroded by outside events, or, in the case of the seemingly unexplained bursts of violence and sadism in this village of the damned, inside events. It begins with the death of a horse and ends with the death of an Archduke, which will, in turn, lead to millions more dead, including horses. You can’t help but see the innocence and peace of this pre-war era in the silent fields of wheat and other crops, the very fields that will soon be torn up in France. When one character takes his revenge on the baron by destroying a field of cabbages, portent is in every swipe of the scythe. (Good lord, he’s even using death’s own gardening implement.)

The crisp monochrome makes it look like a 1950s European film (I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monkia and Smiles Of A Summer Night, which I love), and it’s only halfway through that you start to notice the lack of music. The titles are silent, which is unnerving enough, but the lack of a score isn’t immediately apparent – well, it wasn’t to me. How strange to see a film where the only sound comes from what’s on the screen. After Hidden, which was quite a perplexing puzzle with a fairly open ending, White Ribbon is far more linear, with clear narration to move the action along with the perspective of time having passed, and a mystery that actually gets solved.

This doesn’t mean it’s an easy film. It’s not. It’s stiff and awkward and evasive and its true horror is concealed beneath propriety and tradition and routine, reflecting the airs and graces of the world it portrays; all the more thrilling, then, when the truth comes out, as when the doctor reveals his true, world-weary, patriarchal feelings to his lover, which are not nice feelings at all. Such cruelty merely serves to underscore the emotional purity of the relationship between the starchy pastor and his youngest son, embodied by the injured bird he nurses back to health. (Warning, there are two incidents of animal cruelty, one of them already mentioned, but neither is graphic or dwelt upon. The thought is enough.)

I am still thinking about this film, days later. That is the mark of a great film for me. By comparison, I really enjoyed An Education a couple of weeks ago – well-acted, well-scripted – but I barely thought about it again, beyond pondering how they could let a character in 1962 drop two individual teabags into two mugs. The White Ribbon needs to be seen. Just don’t go in with the fidgets.

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6 thoughts on “The gathering storm

  1. This post is a good opportunity to mention how much I enjoyed Grass. I didn't even know it was written by you at the time, thinking of you only as one half of Collings and Maconies.

  2. Interesting review. I have to say, I saw Cold Souls yesterday and the three trailers before it – for The White Ribbon, a Spanish coming-of-age drama and Unmade Beds (he's a free spirit! She's an artist! They're just so KOOKY!) – looked like exact, note-perfect parodies of trailers you'd see before seeing an independent film at the Curzon. Which put me off somewhat.But I may give this a go now.

  3. I also really enjoyed Grass and had not idea you'd written it when I bought the dvd, a purchase made on a whim on ebay. I didn't see you with humus either, I obviously wasn't paying attention.I also remembered that my first kiss was on that village green. its not a good thing that i recalled getting drunk in the back room of the pub during episode 2, but only remembered my first kiss in episode 7, my priorities as a teenager where all wrong.Andy

  4. I once saw Simon Day wandering around at a Kew Gardens picnic concert looking for somewhere to put his rug. I was dying to say "someone's sitting there, mate" but resisted as I thought he would be sick to death of hearing it.John

  5. I am still thinking about this film, days later. That is the mark of a great film for me Yes, I absolutely agree with you on this to a point…As to the music I seem to remember that Soderbergh's 'Solaris' also has no music score and it has not starting titles (as I remember it) just 'bam!' straight into the film. I still remember just being amazed by how refreshing that was.Now if you want the polar opposite of that, look to any dino de laurentiis film. Not that is a bad thing, but just so very different. I remember watching Conan the Barbarian for the first time at the cinema and being 'blasted' back into my seat by the opening titles.It's a shame people don't spend more time and imagination on the opening titles than just some random list of names. The old Pink Pather films, Bond (of course), and those ealing comedies (trinians et al).(PS word verification was 'bores');)

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