The White Ribbon

 

The White Ribbon

Directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Josef Bierbichler
Genre: Drama
Run time: 144 minutes,  Year: 2009
Grade: A

 

How to explain Michael Haneke’s own cinematic dealings with suspense and subtlety?

First of all, his gaze focuses entirely on what is happening, not why or who. For example, a several crimes are committed and we viewers never get to find out who have committed them. (This is true of this movie The White Ribbon as well as his magnum opus, Cache.) We can speculate, of course, but he leaves the mystery bloated and hung in the air, and this tendency of his can frustrate a fair number of audiences, but his focus is what the story is about, that is, what is happening. What has happened deserves our most attention, regardless of why or who caused them. In sense, isn’t that what life is? Things happen. “Why?” is always subjective.

The story in The White Ribbon takes places in a small German village right before the World War I. Everyone knows everyone in this countryside village, and no one locks their doors even at night. Each house has many children (on average 5 children per household, it seems), and a baron and baroness own much of the land, lending them to farmers for work. The village also has a steward, a pastor, and a doctor, the vocations that grant some power to yield. The sense of community is firm.

When the story begins, an old man’s voice narrates. Apparently, he’s looking back on what happened in that village many years ago, and he admits forthright that his account is by no means complete, objective, or correct. He tells of strange crimes that have taken place in that village over a year, and he shares his own interpretation. The entire story is this old man’s interpretation. Back then, he was a young teacher who taught music to children. He is attracted to this new nanny, Eva, and courts her. He genuinely is concerned with the well-being of children, and he is in a rare position in this village (in social standing, higher up than farmers and children but lower than doctor, pastor, and steward). We viewers are convinced that his narration is trustworthy.

A doctor riding a horse trips over the wire set up between two trees by an unknown culprit and is indisposed severely. A farmer’s wife falls through the second-story floor and dies on impact. The baron’s child is kidnapped and beaten. A barn is set on fire at night. A retarded boy named Karli is abducted and blinded. These are the disclosed crimes that is announced to the entire village. The baron announces that the culprit is among them and urges them to cooperate in searching. However, scarier crimes are being committed behind the closed doors, the crimes that only the culprit and victim know about, and these crimes are laid bare for us viewers; a doctor abusing his own daughter sexually, a pastor tying his son’s arms to bed railing so that he can’t masturbate, a steward mercilessly beating his own son because of his shitty mood, and a midwife who’s sleeping with the doctor, the woman who might be responsible for the death of doctor’s wife a few years ago. These crimes are the secrets the characters harbor deep inside them.

Michael Haneke said in the interview that the movie is about “the roots of evil.” As I mentioned previously, the culprit to the “major” crimes is never found. The teacher believes that it is children who’ve committed them, but there’s no hard proof. Of course, when Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated, precipitating the first Great War, these crimes are soon forgotten. The question of “the roots of evil” is, undoubtedly a difficult one, but in this movie, Haneke seems to suggest the starting point for such discussion. Evil is embedded in us, and it is there to witness when we focus on what’s being done. There is no difference between “major” crimes and “secret, minor” crimes, and no savior on cross can ever cleanse us of our sins. Often, we’re too obsessed with scapegoating, through which a vicarious purifying process happens in one’s mind. It’s them who’re doing the wrongs; it’s never us, we’d like to believe.

Michael Haneke with the cast

Michael Haneke is one of the most important film makers alive in this age of consumerism, which has negatively affected the artistic merits of film making. His movies are important and always thought provoking, as I believe all movies should be. He is a master of formalistic techniques in cinema also, so that his choice of the ways of telling also tells in parallel the story the sequences of events are telling.

At times repulsive, creepy but never within the slow boiling of suspense and dread, The White Ribbon is a great achievement in cinema history. It rightly won the 2009 Cannes Festival award.

Coming Home

Coming Home

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Gong Li, Chen Daoming, Zhang Huiwen
Genre: Drama, Period Piece, Chinese Cinema
Runtime: 111 minutes,  Year: 2014
Grade : A-

 

Sadness.

There are different species of sadness, dispersed to different continents of the world. The sadness you react to in the movie “Coming Home” does not reside in the movies produced in the Western world. Directed by Zhang Yimou, one of the most prominent Chinese director working today, with his perennial muse Gong Li, “Coming Home” transcends the cliches of histrionic dramas by superb actings and impeccable narrative that arrives at a heartrending denouement.

In a sense, “Coming Home” is a family tragedy caused by the political turmoil that does not discriminate in choosing its victims. It opens during the country’s infamous cultural revolution, and in the center of everything, we see a mother and her daughter. The father is missing; he was taken as a political prisoner ten years ago. The police visits the family with a news that he has escaped. The wife and the husband attempt at a rendezvous at the railway station, but they fail.

The scenes leading up to that point are only a prelude, and the movie takes the drastic turn as we are transported three years later and the husband is no longer a political prisoner. He comes home, but his wife is suffering from the special case of psychotic-amnesia and does not recognize her husband, although she anxiously awaits for him. The husband tries to invoke the memories of their shared past by playing familiar piano tunes and reading unsent letters. His daughter helps, but their patience is tested time and again. The movements of characters and the surroundings are gentle, as the camera moves slowly, lingering a bit longer at the faces of these characters. Their expressions portray multitudinous of feelings: hopes distended , hopes dashed, resilience tested, new bond formed, love confused, love redefined.

Zhang Yimou with the actors

People usually think love consummates when it reifies a two-way passageway through which feelings can travel. Can one-sided love ever be true love? The movie “Coming Home” may complicate this debate for many people. It’s the cinematic magic Zhang Yimou yield in this movie. It may be slow at times, but never less than enticing. Can be a tear-jerker for some people. All in all, “Coming Home” is a beautiful movie.

Anomalisa

Anomalisa

Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Starring: (Voices by) David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Genre: Drama, Stop-motion Animation
Runtime: 90 min.
Grade: A-

 

She says she learned the new vocabulary word “anomaly” from reading his book. He says then she can be “Anomalisa” because her name is Lisa. She feels special because she is just bestowed with ‘one of a kind name’ that no one has. This instance offers her the chance to forget her loneliness for a moment. The man, Michael, who is married and has a kid, is trying to score a one-night-stand with Lisa in order to forget his own loneliness. And he succeeds. Succeeds in sleeping with her, I mean, but not necessarily in curing his loneliness.

Somehow, this one-night sex neither seems tawdry nor lustful. It is funny, definitely, but heartwarming as well. The sex scene, which is many minutes long, works tremendously well in this movie mainly because every character and every “thing” is puppet-like. It is a stop-motion film with puppets playing the characters with voice-overs.

Another important fact about this movie that needs mentioning is that its co-director is Charlie Kaufman, whose narrative technique is so inventive (Being John Malkovich, Secret Sunshine of Spotless Mind) as to there’s no one like him working in Hollywood nowadays. He treats and reveals human nature as a mother does a newborn baby, very tenderly, with a lot of considerations in mind. In Anomalisa, he seemed to have set his mind on the loneliness of 21st century men and women. This particular loneliness in our age; is it a product of this zeitgeist, or is it merely a self-imposed, pathetic gesture to garner more sympathy in one’s miserable middle-age?

The movie portrays the one day of the author and public speaker named Michael, who is on a business trip. Not a thing slides by him without nagging his nerves. At hotel, he feels the need to talk to someone (females only), and ends up calling his ex. Then he chances upon Lisa, who shares his sentiment. They spend the night together. None of these is a spoiler. If I may offer a spoiler, it is that all the characters, except Michael and Lisa, have a same voice. You can think about why that is so.

Making of “Anomalisa”

The story is simple yet full of “small” emotions and details. Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books wrote a long essay on this movie (Link Here), profusely praising the work and criticizing the Academy Award committee for overlooking its merits. I mostly agree with her points; Charlie Kaufman’s movies are philosophically engaging and he effectively succeeds in sending the message he wants to send every time, although an interpretation for it might be difficult for simple-minded viewers. Compared to other movies, this movie came to me as more linear and less multi-layered, although that might be so because it is stop-motion, puppet-populated film. Nevertheless, the film is a worthy one, simple on the surface but deep and comprehensive underneath. Highly recommended.