Friday, January 29, 2010

Top Films: Das Weiße Band



What you may have heard about this movie is true, but not always in the way you would think. It is certainly one of the best movies of the year. It is thought provoking and interesting to watch. It is disturbing, but that is where you may have been misled. Michael Haneke has a reputation for exploring violence onscreen. This movie does have violence, but it is almost all off-screen. The disturbing nature of the film lies in the topic it explores—the total depravity of man.

The setting is a small German village during the year before World War I. The story is told as recollections of the town school teacher, years later as his memory has begun to fail. He fills in his gaps of knowledge with speculation, so we are not really even meant to take the story at face value. It explores several events of violence and crime committed by persons unseen and could be considered a mystery except for the fact that no one ever tries to really find out who is committing the crimes, and we as viewers never really no for certain who committed them.

Some people think this is a story about the beginnings of fascism. Some, like Roger Ebert, think that the movie is about a murder—something that never happens in the film. Needless to say, Haneke is not presenting the viewer with a simple morality tale, or even a simple tale at all. It is, however, a story with a moral. Haneke is presenting us with a world where evil things happen; much like the real world we live in.

At the center of this world, are those in authority who allow the bad things to happen, and even cause some of them. The Baron allows his workers to work in conditions that are dangerous enough that they sometimes die. The doctor is competent and caring, yet he is a cruel adulterer using his lover and abusing his daughter. The pastor is a legalistic disciplinarian who mentally abuses his children with guilt.

However, all of that does not answer the question posed by the movie. Why do people turn to and follow extreme ideologies like those that dominated Europe in the 20th Century and much of the Islamic world today? The events of this movie are horrible but sadly commonplace.

Perhaps the answer lies in the one character that does nothing wrong—the school teacher. Towards the end of the film, the teacher has strong reasons to think that he knows who the evildoers of the film are. When he shares his suspicions with the Pastor—that his children and the other kids in town may have committed many of the crimes we have witnessed—the pastor will not accept his story. In fact he threatens to humiliate the teacher if he shares these theories with anyone else. What does the teacher do? Nothing. He waits his entire life, through two world wars and into old age, before he shares the story.

Perhaps that is how terrorism and totalitarianism begin. People see and recognize evil, but when authority figures hide the truth to protect themselves, the people remain silent and submissive.

That is not the entire point to the movie, of course. There are a lot of little scenes and moments that have little to do with the evil of the story, but that are wonderful on their own: The teacher meeting the father of the girl he loves. The pastor and his youngest son having two conversations about a bird. The son of the doctor learning from his sister for the first time what death is… This may very wellbe the best film of 2009.

For a selection of scenes, including part of one listed above, see here or here's a trailer:

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