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A Masterpiece of the Highest Order

Shane Steinberg | Thursday, January 21, 2010

With 2009’s Palm d’Or winner, “White Ribbon,” auteur Michael Haneke has further cemented himself as not only one of the world’s premiere directors but as perhaps the most uncomplicated social critic in the industry while wrought with complexity at the same time. His deliberately paced Tour de Force of a film is unnerving at the least, and at the most, downright horrifying in its illumination of what we as humans are not only capable of but what is a part of our very nature. With the lights casting deep shadows on the cast, Haneke’s pre-WWI period piece manages to delve deep into the confines of both sides of our black and white world — more specifically, into the death of innocence and the manifestation of evil.
His comment on the human condition, so beautifully rendered here in luscious black and white, is a harrowing look into a culture veiled in a blanket of lies that only make the mysterious atrocities witnessed in the seemingly unsuspecting German town all the more revealing as a precursor to the atrocities perpetrated by Germany in the years to come.
The unnamed North German town is governed by an unquestioned moral code that is nothing more than a mistaken façade defied by all levels of the hierarchy in ever more serious ways. The children, seemingly the only innocent characters in the film, suffer the most from this code, while the adults, mainly the religious heads and powerful men, the keepers of the code, carry on as if they haven’t raped, cheated, stolen and murdered. The children however are the true evil in this film. True to the word of Thomas Hobbes, they internalize the wickedness of their parents, adhere to the blanket of falseness their town forces on them, and carry on with their stagnant lives as innocence, the town’s gold — the gold of humanity — goes to die.  
Armed with a keen eye for composition and an exceptional understanding of actor blocking, Haneke elevates the medium to a polished form of classic black and white that makes the film altogether believable as a period piece as well as metaphorical. His evil souls stand out against the dreary grey backdrop of the town, while the meticulous details that fill the screen distract from the monstrosities, or humans, depending on how you judge them, looming in the forefront. When all else fades to black though, the shot sits still to reveal the entire cast sitting in a church almost as if to be judged by God, and only a white ribbon remains, reminding us all of the innocence that has eluded the town, and would go on to elude the country.
What exactly is happening in this small German town? Just who is responsible? And why? These are the pivotal questions looming over the town throughout the film, but just as elusive as they seem, the answers are staring at us the entire time, making no attempt to hide themselves from our glare. And therein lies the beauty of the mystery — that there may be no mystery at all, and maybe, even, that while the characters are speaking German, and while we know beforehand what Germany did in the decades to come, “White Ribbon,” as dated and national as it is, may not be about Germany. Not really, anyway. Maybe the film’s setting and seeming criticism of Germany is just as much a façade as is the religiousness and morality of the town we slowly but surely begin to shake our heads in dismay towards. We’re frowning at ourselves really — at Germany for the manifested monstrosity that it was — but at ourselves for the monstrosity that deep down inside, we know we can be and in many ways are.  
There’s an undeniable truth in seeing what we, not just Germans, are capable of, and where it starts and how it grows. Evil is humanity, Haneke asserts. And with that being said, this is a veraciously chilling film, one that, perhaps, never answers the real question at its core, “What makes us capable of such atrociousness?”
Maybe the question isn’t meant to be answered. Maybe it’s not even important, just like the questions of who, what, and why.
Or perhaps… Perhaps it is meant to be answered.
Maybe the answer is staring us in the face all along, just like the guilty children are. Maybe — or come to think of it — almost assuredly, the answer is that the heinousness perpetrated in this film runs through our veins just the same as blood does, and that no dose of religion or moral code can deny nature its just desserts.  
And there lies the secret to the only film this year truly deserving of being called a masterpiece: a simplistic complexity, or sweeping narrowness. Here, Haneke creates no eluding tale wrought with perplexities. Confused, and in denial perhaps, we search for something greater than is actually there, something as complex as we foolishly perceive the film to be. But our search is all for naught. Haneke has crafted no elusive puzzle. Instead, he shows naked humanity, after all of the facades we cloak ourselves in, after all the lies we tell ourselves. He delves into the soul and peers directly at the head of the heart, and without color, without hesitation and without apology, reveals the sewage that is man. Nothing more. Nothing less.