Revivals aside, we are lucky to get one black-and-white film a year. So we must count ourselves lucky, already in January, to get Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, a common choice in cultural hubs as the Best Foreign Film of 2009 and the choice of the Los Angeles Film Critics in particular for Best Cinematography (Christian Berger’s, to give credit where due). Well of course, for the reason cited, it certainly stands out from all other pieces of cinematography in the past year. It just as certainly would not have so stood out from the pieces of, shall we say, fifty years past. Black-and-white has become a prime candidate for the growing list of things that movies have forgotten how to do, an endangered species, a lost art. Practice, whether or not it makes perfect, is at least apt to make competent.
The black-and-white on exhibit here maintains the narrowest range of shades of gray, sometimes milky, sometimes metallic, but everywhere flat, monotonic, monolithic, lacking the properties that have made black-and-white arguably superior to color: more pliable, more moldable, more sensual, more sculptural, more topographical, more dimensional than even 3-D. The starchiness and asceticism of the image in The White Ribbon might be said to be appropriate to and expressive of the subject matter. But I myself could not say that without feeling I was reaching, and the film on the whole does not inspire me to reach.
The subject matter, without any question somber and severe, has to do with the unsettling goings-on — unsettlement being Haneke’s staff of life — in a Protestant town in northern Germany in the year leading up to the First World War. If the reminiscing narrator, in old man’s voice, hadn’t suggested at the outset that the events “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country” — presumably things that happened in the lead-up to the Second World War — it is doubtful whether the viewer would find much significance in the goings-on or would be much disposed to search for some. It sets up an expectation. Ominousness, at the least, would not be hard to find or far to seek.
For openers, the local doctor is grievously injured and his horse put out of its misery after they are tripped up on their daily ride by an all but invisible wire. A peasant’s wife then dies in an apparent factory accident, and her husband is soon an apparent suicide. A cabbage patch is vandalized, a barn set afire, a pet bird decapitated. The landowner’s son gets strung up, depantsed, and caned; a retarded boy has his eyes poked out. Plainly all of these occurrences cannot be ascribed to one single motive or laid at any one person’s feet, but often present or not far off are the several feet of a pack of children who seem to be in rehearsal for a remake of Village of the Damned. Two of them, fair-headed daughter and son of a rigid and repressive pastor worthy of Ingmar Bergman, are forced to wear the titular ribbon to remind them of the purity and innocence to which they should aspire.
Although all of that might sound like a busy schedule of goings-on, they are dispersed over a two-and-a-half-hour running time, and with only one exception (the cabbage-patch caper) they come to pass offscreen. There is accordingly a disconnectedness about them — the chronology is difficult to recall with precision — and little tension or suspense in between, so that the unsettlement may be noted but not truly felt. And the mystery of it all is deepened by the question of why we can’t get the two abused boys simply to tell us who did it to them. My own sense is that Haneke works better when he works closer to genre conventions, creating tension in his strain to keep a goodly distance from them, in the French Caché or in the Austrian Funny Games or in his shot-for-shot remake of the latter in the English language.
There can be no mistaking his seriousness, his gravity. If the aberrant black-and-white photography — always something of a stunt these days — and the grueling two-and-a-half-hour running time weren’t sufficient, the director’s characteristic abstinence from background music would settle the matter. Curiosity, however, of a whodunit type, is liable to be in constant contention with boredom: whocareswhodunit. Besides, in one sense the solution is obvious: Haneke done it. As some wag once observed, the primary ailment of the people in a Bergman film is that they are in a Bergman film. (Or words to that effect.) Similarly the people in a Haneke film. The benign character of the first-person narrator — at the time of the story a young, chubby, rubber-faced schoolteacher in a pair of pince-nez — gives us, through his courtship of a demure country girl employed as a nanny, someone to warm up to, someone to pull for, though someone on the outside looking in, a trustworthy but ineffectual witness. In the end, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the whole infested village couldn’t just as well be plunked down in Sweden or Holland. And what would be the significance of that?
Festival season opens this week at the UA Horton Plaza, Thursday the 28th through Sunday the 30th, with the San Diego Black Film Festival, self-described as “The Third Largest Black Film Festival in the Country.” (By what measure I couldn’t say.) Guests of Honor will be Danny Glover at the Opening Day Reception and Spike Lee two days later at the Awards Dinner and Gala. Full information may be found at sdbff.com. This event will soon be followed by the venerable (twentieth annual) San Diego Jewish Film Festival, February 10 through 21 at several venues, the AMC La Jolla principally, the UltraStar Mission Valley and La Costa, the Reading Carmel Mountain, and the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. The slick twenty-eight-page catalog betrays no evidence of economic belt-tightening. If you cannot lay your hands on one of those, go to lfjcc.org/sdjff for the same info.