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White Ribbon, The (Blu-ray Review)

28 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 6/29/10
Sony Pictures
Box Office $2.2 million
$28.95 DVD, $38.96 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.
In German with English subtitles.
Stars Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Rainer Bock.

Set like Days of Heaven in a sparsely populated community in the era just before World War I, Germany’s double Oscar nominee just about does for black-and-white cinematography what Terrence Malick’s masterpiece did for color.

A lot of cinematographers say viewers shouldn’t be conscious of their artistry, reasoning that it’s more artful when invisible. It’s a statement with which I’ve never fully agreed, at least when talking about the form at its highest level. Are supposed to look at, say, Hud (black-and-white) or The Red Shoes (color) without acknowledging that our socks are being knocked off? Great lensing (to use Variety jargon) thrusts you into a movie’s universe and makes you an accomplice to the storytellers’ vision, even when the story being told doesn’t do a whole lot for one’s appreciation of the human condition.

This is the case with writer/director Michael Haneke’s almost 2-and-a-half-hour yet continually absorbing nominee for foreign- language film and, yes, Christian Berger’s cinematography. Its setting is a feudalistic village in Northern Germany where the welcome wagon apparently has four busted wheels. Deeds that escalate from pesky to evil are being perpetrated by someone — or ones — and even at the end when we have a general idea of the culprits, we’re not totally sure where to point our fingers.

The first victim is the local doctor, who’s seriously injured when his horse hits a tripwire that has been strung across the road, something that sounds like a stupid children’s prank. Nice job, you say sarcastically: injuring a member of the profession that’s usually a community’s most admired. Except that much later, we see the doc verbally eviscerating his mistress (a woman who already has endured lots of pain in her life), and we start to think maybe the rope should have been made of cement.

Another on-paper candidate for the most admired local would be the baron who owns all the land, but he has so tyrannized his beautiful wife that she can’t even live in the same house. The pastor, too, is someone who might offer inspiration, but he’s a capital-P Protestant whose rigidity fosters no love from his children. Espousing purity, he gives them white ribbons to symbolize the trait — which means woe be it if you’re his adolescent son and he catches you masturbating.

Of course, there is a sweet romance between the schoolteacher who’s narrating the story and a local nanny. But the former, now elderly and relating a story that occurred decades earlier, was a stranger to the community even before he elected to bail out of it (and fairly fast). This leaves a younger generation whom all this is affecting, and the movie has a good narrative punch line (involving them) that makes a certain kind of sense. Though Haneke is shrewd enough simply to employ suggestion rather than hammering his point home.

Ribbon won the Golden Palm at Cannes but may have been too grim (despite a Golden Globe win as well) for Oscar voters. Instead, they went for Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes, an undeniably absorbing movie but one that lacks Ribbon’s heft. Though the Ribbon Blu-ray contains a making-of featurette and a couple more on Haneke, the standard DVD has no extras — somewhat surprising given the all the year-end awards the cinematography won. In the end, this is a movie that even Sven Nykvist (Ingmar Bergman’s right hand behind the camera) would have been proud to have on his filmography. Bergman, too, I think.

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