Das weisse Band - eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009)
Michael Haneke talks implicitly in capital letters about large anthropological issues in his 2009 Palme d'Or winner Das weisse Band. It's an artistic and extremely ambitious film with several marks of greatness – but also a depressive and misanthropic nature.
The film is shot delicately in black and white with a pace and devotion that brings us back to the period and environment it depicts (a rural German village in 1913) more convincingly than I can remember any film doing. The story is presented as a low-level crime mystery, as our protagonist, the village's teacher, takes us through a series of strange and malignant occurrences. It soon becomes quite clear that Haneke's story is highly allegorical, but the outright drama is still very strong and captivating for long periods. This is aided by some memorable acting by an ensemble cast - particularly the many younger performers. At times, Haneke allows his players to open their otherwise restrained characters up, and these few scenes (such as a couple of episodes with the pastor, his youngest son, and a bird) are the most emotional and touching in the film.
Arguably, it is the lack of warmth, compassion and sentiment which makes these few scenes so powerful. Because Haneke saturates his piece with coldness and pessimism – all for the purpose of fortifying his heavy blow against humanity in general and the situation in Germany leading up to the two World Wars in particular. It is interesting to see the suggestions of how a repressive religion, an abusive patriarchal social order, and a grave class distinction could form the smouldering basis for the German Nazi regime. It is also quite obvious that Haneke mirrors this situation to contemporary societies in which the three aforementioned conditions are present. In this respect, Das weisse Band is also a warning.
Haneke's best achievement with Das weisse Band is how he uses small, everyday incidents and mechanisms in the small village to represent larger issues. The artistic skill with which he does this, seemingly effortlessly, is impressive. These delicate scenes and segments also make the film enticing, despite a protracted running time and a slow narrative pace.
In my opinion, there are far too few films with Das weisse Band's level of ambition - both artistically, intellectually and philosophically - and for that it should be saluted. Haneke is a filmmaker who has a lot to say, and he is immensely intelligent about it. There is arguably not a single shot in this film which is not thoroughly considered, and still the film doesn't feel constructed (like Von Trier's Dogville) or too ouroboric (like Von Trier's Dogville). Still, Haneke's pessimism (which is also highly present in Funny Games) must be endured - it won't be shared by every viewer. Additionally, I generally believe that viewers should be rewarded for their patience and interest with a proper ending, as opposed to the stop Haneke presents here. It's unsatisfactory – but then again, I suspect this was just what Haneke wanted.