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Endings and The White Ribbon

March 18, 2010

Claude, my film snob husband, taught me to dislike happy endings.  He taught me to enjoy ambiguous endings and downer endings.  Prior to Claude, I didn’t fully understand how satisfying a hazy or horrifying or unexpected ending to a film could be.  Several movies I’ve seen recently have some pretty interesting and bewildering endings.  Barton Fink by the Coen Brothers; The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke and The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman.  The first and last mentioned have highly comedic, laugh-out-loud moments throughout the majority of the film, only to kind of sucker-punch you in the end.  The White Ribbon’s ending is very murky, leaving you wanting more, but more would ruin it.  I think many great filmmakers know when enough is enough, and what they do with films like these is make you think about them long afterward.  With a happy, neatly tied up ending, with “closure” to a film like those mentioned above, I think one tends to forget about it later – it doesn’t haunt you.  A movie is only effective to me if it haunts me in some way; if I revisit it again and again either in my mind or by watching it.  Like the ghost of Cathy on the moors in Wuthering Heights, it comes back beckoning for you time and again, and like Heathcliff, I want to run after the spectre of these films.

I want to write about The White Ribbon for several reasons:  a) it’s Haneke, who is getting a bad rap these days for his endings; b) it’s currently in theatres; c) it was nominated for best foreign film by the Academy Awards, and picked up the Golden Globe for best foreign film.  This is a stunningly gorgeous movie, and it is creepy at the same time.  Set in a village in pre-World War I Germany, shot in dazzling black-and-white, The White Ribbon tells the tale of strange and unexplainable occurrences that happen to a number of villagers.  Several families and familial units intertwine:  the excessively stern pastor with his brood of children, whom he berates and beats viciously; the village doctor, his small son and pre-teen daughter and his mistress who looks after the children (the doctor’s wife has died); the poor working family who seems to receive a good deal of blame for these “incidents”.  I must say that the performances garnered from the children of this film are what struck me so, and the children are the main centerpiece of the film.  A particular scene where the doctor’s young son (who cannot be more than five years old) is talking with his older sister about death and dying simply froze me, for I wondered if the child was not only acting, but also understanding the concepts of death and dying for the first time in his young life.  His eyes are so wide and innocent in this scene, and he is so angelic.  Yet he is asking questions quietly and with a visible mixture of terror and sadness on his cherub face about who dies, why and when and how – it’s an incredibly powerful moment that will haunt me for a long time.

Michael Haneke, director, writer and producer of The White Ribbon, has received a lot of negative criticism for “disliking his characters”.  In the two of his films that I have seen, and in discussing this with Claude, who, of course, has seen them all, I can’t see that.  I think his characters are fleshed out very well, and especially in the case of The White Ribbon, Haneke extorts pathos, fear, grief, joy, and disdain – an entire range of emotions.  Coupled with eye-popping cinematography in high-contrast black and white, I’m not sure you can get much better in my very uneducated opinion.  I hope more people will see it and be moved and haunted as I was by The White Ribbon.  Highly recommended.

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