Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The White Ribbon – Perfect for Fashionistas

The Austrian director Michael Haneke, is one of the world's most challenging and puzzling film makers, as everyone who saw Caché ("Hidden"), with its disturbingly inconclusive ending, will remember. His latest, The White Ribbon, a tale of emotional deprivation and conscious and unconscious cruelty, is strong meat. Ambiguous, unsettling, puzzling, challenging: the usual critical vocabulary used of Haneke comes to mind as this grim tale of life in a German Lutheran village just before World War I unfolds – and totally enfolds the viewer in its tight and sinister closed world. Like Caché, The White Ribbon is a who-dunnit, but one for which the answer is not one culprit but a whole village, including its strange Midwich Cuckoos type children. It is a battle of power – and the ones ultimately revealed to have it are as surprising as one might expect from this director.

For visually aware fashionistas (is there any other kind?), the film is stunning. Image after carefully composed image builds up the sense of a separate but strangely familiar world of total authenticity. It doesn't take too long for the penny to drop. This film is a re-creation of the turn-of-the- century world of the German photographer August Sander, specifically inspired by his best-known image, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. In order to capture the etched-in-ice clarity of Sander's photography, Haneke shot the film in colour and then converted it to black and white. The result is a blend of sharpness and subtlety that eerily conveys a sense of time and place that colour would have probably failed to capture.

But what will fascinate all people who are excited by appearances is the cast. Carefully chosen for their ability to look exactly like their historic counterparts seen in Sander's work – which, shockingly, was largely destroyed by the Nazis – what stays in the memory is the faces (I seem to be having a faces 'thing' at the moment, especially in films), which are almost unnervingly period perfect, especially those of the children, chosen from over 7,000 hopefuls, for how convincingly they could be 'Sanderised'. Interestingly, most of the adult actors were recruited from the theatre, not film, and few are known outside Austria. What is clear is that a film like The White Ribbon is authentic because the director wished to re-create a period and place for us and set out to do so with uncompromising rigour.

In contrast, the idiocy of most period films (eg the truly dire The Young Victoria) results from a determination to modernise the past - mainly, I suspect, so that the heroine can be easily recognised and identified by her fans. The result, apart from a slight nod in the direction of an early-19th-century hairstyle, is that Emily Blunt as the young queen looked no more Victorian than any pretty young woman walking down a street today. You will not be too surprised to learn that The Young Victoria has so far earned almost £5 million at the box office in the UK while, to date, The White Ribbon, released just six months later and the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, has made just over £400,000. The former, of course, will soon sink into that deep pit of oblivion known as movies on TV, whereas the latter will be seen and talked of for many years to come wherever people take seriously the art of film.

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