(Winner of the Palme D’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival)
2005’s Cache` helped establish Michael Haneke as one of European cinema’s premier directors. The film won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival that year along with a slew of various awards. In 2007, Haneke went to the U.S. to do a remake of his 1997 film Funny Games with a cast that included Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, and Michael Pitt. The remake drew mixed reviews as some felt Haneke was making a response to the violent films made in the U.S. In 2009, Haneke returns to Europe for a dark portrait of a family living in Germany before World War I entitled Das Wiesse Band (The White Ribbon).
Written and directed by Michael Haneke with narration by Ernst Jacobi, Das Wiesse Band tells the story of a family living in Northern Germany in 1913. During this time, strange events occur at a village where tension rises as the children are involved with these strange happenings. A film that is partially a study of violence along with repressed themes in societies. It’s a film that recalls Haneke’s provocative exploration with the dark side of humanity. The result is a chilling yet disturbing film from Michael Haneke and company.
It’s the summer of 1913 in a quiet little Northern German town of Eichwald, a Protestant village that is run by a baron (Ulrich Tukur), a pastor (Burghart Klaussner), and a doctor (Rainer Brock). It’s a place that is peaceful where everything is fine until one day when the town’s doctor was injured when his horse tripped on a wire. The incident was the first of a several things to come as many in the town wondered what happened. The second incident involves the death of a farmer’s wife at a sawmill. Meanwhile, the town’s tailor/schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) meets the new nanny Eva (Leonie Benesch) who works for the baron.
At a celebration for the harvest, the baron celebrates with the farmers and locals in the town. Everything seems fine until the baron’s cabbage crop is ruined where it’s revealed to the son of the farmer (Sebastian Hulk) whose wife had died. The son revealed his motives but is overshadowed by another incident when the baron’s son Sigmund (Fion Mutert) went missing only to be found much later hanging upside down with his pants pulled and showing bruises. Many wondered what happened as the baroness (Ursina Lardi) leaves to Italy with Sigmund and her children with the baron wondering what is happening.
With winter coming, the schoolteacher courts Eva after she had been fired by the baron while he meets her father (Detlev Buck) who is concerned about the relationship. Other incidents occur when the baron’s farm is burned while the doctor’s relationship with his longtime midwife (Susanne Lothar) is falling apart. The baron’s steward (Josef Bierbichler) wonders about the behavior of his son (Ennos Trebs) while his daughter Erna (Janina Fautz) tells the schoolteacher something will happen to the midwife’s son (Eddy Grahl) who is handicapped. Things would unravel more in the town as the baron received news about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Serbia. With World War I about to begin and more incidents happening including Erna’s premonition coming true. The schoolteacher realizes something is up as he thinks he knows who are behind these strange incidents.
When someone looks at a calm, peaceful town that is picturesque and full of beauty. It seems like a great place with wonderful people but what happens when that person gets a closer look at the town and begins to see something that isn’t right. That is what the film’s auteur Michael Haneke is asking and more. In fact, who are the culprits doing these strange incidents? What is happening to the town? Is it a foreshadow of what is come? Why are the people who are victimized being targeted? These are the many questions Haneke is asking but the answers aren’t very easy to explain because it confronts the harsh truths that people don’t want to hear.
The film’s title is about innocence as it’s one of the major themes of the film. Yet, the film is about the loss of innocence not through these incidents but also from the main figures in the town who unravel from these incidents. All of this is told from narration by Ernst Jacobi as an older version of the schoolteacher who reflects about this particular year where his life changes not through the meeting of the woman who would become his wife. It is also because it’s the moment where everything he had known about for many years at the town unravels. Jacobi’s narration not only provides information about the town but also allows his character a chance to reflect on varied incidents and such.
The screenplay has a loose structure of sorts where the film does play up to the way it approaches the story. The first act is about the first major incidents that culminates with the incident involving Sigmund and the baroness’ departure from town. The second act revolves around the doctor’s return as well as the continuation of the mysterious incidents. The third is the baroness’ return and the fallout of relationships along with the schoolteacher’s possible discovery. During these incidents, there’s little stories that involve the children throughout the film as it gives an idea of what kind of world these kids live in along with the possibilities of what they would become.
Haneke’s direction is definitely eerie to watch in the way he presents the film. Shooting entirely on black-and-white, it definitely harkens to the films of the 1950s and 1960s made by the late yet legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Like Bergman, Haneke creates an atmospheric quality to the production along with compositions that don’t reveal too much but also doesn’t reveal too little. The big difference is that Haneke’s use of Bergman’s style isn’t to create distinctive compositions that Bergman is used for. It’s to create an atmosphere that is tense and with a large degree of discomfort though Bergman might’ve done that with other films.
Haneke also creates moments where there isn’t much movement with the camera in order to just let the scene unfold. Even as he shoots one character talking in a conversation and then cuts to the other in the conversation. He also allows the film to be accompanied by just natural sounds that are enhanced a bit to bring a level of discomfort once the film progresses. Even Haneke’s use of historical context for its surroundings give way to how moods change throughout the film. By the time the third act occurs and the news of the Archduke’s assassination is heard. It’s clear that chaos is happening throughout everything as the incidents become more aggressive.
It’s Haneke being confrontational while suggesting that many of these incidents are the groundwork of what was to come after World War I in Germany. Yet, Haneke leaves that to the audience as he creates what is certainly a compelling film that leaves more questions than answers. Notably with a resolution that isn’t easy to comprehend along with the idea of how ugly humanity could be.
Cinematographer Christian Berger does a superb yet spectacular job with the film‘s black-and-white photography. Taking cues from the legendary work of longtime Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Berger’s photography definitely captures the beauty of the town that is shot throughout the film. Notably scenes during the winter as its look is truly stunning while using lots of natural light for many of the film’s nighttime interior scenes to capture the sense of dread that plays throughout the film. Berger’s work is definitely the technical highlight of the film.
Editor Monika Willi does an excellent job with the editing by maintaining a slow yet deliberate approach to the pacing along with a cutting style that is mostly straightforward. Notably in the conversation scenes as the rhythm of the cuts play to the dialogue as well as the scene itself in its surrounding. Production designer Christoph Kanter, along with set decorator Hieke Wolf and art director Anja Muller, does a fantastic job with set design for the film by re-creating the look of the houses in the early 1910s as well as the props that were made at the time.
Costume designer Moidele Bickel does a wonderful job with the costumes in recreating the early 1910s look filled with bits of traditional German clothing along with the way it represents class differences. One of the notable pieces of the costumes are the white ribbons that two of the older kids of the local pastor wears. Sound editor Vincent Guillon does a phenomenal job with the film’s sound as it plays up the tense atmosphere in the locations as well as the sense of dread in many of the interior scenes. Guillon’s sound work is another technical highlight of the film in playing up its suspense as well as the quiet but discomforting tone of the place the film is set in. The film’s music is mostly played on location as it features classical music, traditional German music, and prayers that are played throughout the film.
The casting by Simone Bar, Carmen Loley, and Markus Schleinzer is definitely amazing for its large array of actors used throughout the film. For many of the small roles in the film, there are a slew of memorable performances from Levin Henning as a young son of the pastor, Gabriela Maria Schmeide as the steward’s wife, Birgit Minichmayr as the farmer’s daughter, Sebastian Hulk as the farmer’s eldest son, Eddy Grahl as the midwife’s handicapped son, Miljan Chatelain as the doctor’s son Rudi, Michael Schenk and Hanus Polak Jr. as detectives, and Michael Kranz as Sigi’s tutor. Other notable small roles include Branko Samarovski as the farmer who loses his wife in an accident, Detlev Buck as Eva’s father, Steffi Kuhnert as the pastor’s wife, and Roxane Duran as the doctor’s daughter.
For varied roles of the children, the casting in that department is phenomenal. Among these memorable yet chilling performances are Janina Fautz as the steward’s daughter whose dreams is filled with bad premonitions along with Enno Trebs as her creepy-looking younger brother. Fion Mutert is pretty good as the baron’s son Sigmund while Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf are excellent in their eerie roles as the pastor’s older children. In the role of the midwife, Susanne Lothar is wonderful as a woman who cares for her son while dealing her failing relationship with the doctor. Rainer Brock is really good as the town’s doctor who at first, seems like a good man only to be someone who is truly dark over his treatment towards women.
Josef Bierbichler is superb in his intense role as the steward who wonders what is going while he has a very intense scene where he confronts his son. Ursina Lardi is excellent as the baroness whose life is shattered by the incidents while she has a great moment when she confronts her husband about what’s happening. Ulrich Tukur is amazing as the baron whose peaceful life and rule is shattered by the incidents as he is later revealed to be someone that the farmers didn’t really like as his own political clout starts to fall.
Leonie Benesch is radiant as Eva, the nanny whom the town’s schoolteacher falls for as she displays an air of innocence and grace that the doctor falls for. Christian Friedel is great as the young doctor who is a very good though somewhat naïve man whose life goes well when he meets Eva while his whole perception about his environment is shattered by these incidents. Burghart Klaussner is phenomenal as the town’s pastor who tries to steer his children into being good though is baffled by his elder children’s sudden behavior. Klaussner’s performance is the best performance of the film as he plays a good-hearted man that lives in denial over what is happening along with the fact that he knows who it could be but couldn’t face it.
Das Wiesse Band is a harrowing yet intriguing film from Michael Haneke that features an amazing ensemble cast. Fans of Haneke’s work will no doubt see this as one of his finest films yet as well as being one of 2009’s most provocative films in a year of challenging art-house films. Casual audiences might be put off by the film’s eerie tone as well as its lack of flourishing camera shots. At the same time, it’s a film that recalls the ugliness of humanity along with the idea of innocence lost. In the end, Das Wiesse Band is a stunning yet chilling masterpiece from Michael Haneke and company.
Michael Haneke Films: (The Seventh Continent) - (Benny’s Video) - (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) - Funny Games (1997) - Code Unknown - The Piano Teacher - (Time of the Wolf) - Cache` - Funny Games (2007 film) - Amour - Happy End
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