When evil comes to town

It’s difficult to ‘genrify’ Michael Haneke’s award-winning film, The White Ribbon (“Das weisse Band”). Drama, horror and humour are blended to tell an unnerving story about a series of strange events that disrupt life in a pre-World War I village in Northern Germany.

The film is narrated by the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), whose Christian name is never mentioned, and opens with a description of the first of many ‘terrible incidents’ to befall the town. The local doctor (Rainer Bock) is seriously injured as his horse trips over a wire that has been deliberately spanned between two trees. A local farm worker’s wife falls through the rotten floorboards of the mill. Next, the baron’s son (Fion Mutert)is kidnapped and beaten. A blind, disabled child is assaulted. What makes these crimes so terrifying is not so much the violence of them, but the fact they are perpetrated by someone who the villagers is unable to identify but know lives among them.

While the events that occur at first appear random they soon take on the appearance of a ritualistic almost religious punishment, for, in this village, everyone has a dark and terrible secret. The ‘good’ doctor molests his daughter and emotionally abuses his mistress. The baron’s wife cheats on him, while the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) ties his son’s hands at night so the child cannot ‘defile’ himself by masturbating

And then there are the children themselves. Children are meant to be symbols of purity and innocence, but the viewer soon discovers something is amiss here. Not since the 1960 classic horror, The Village of the Damned, have there been children so sinister at the centre of a plot. The young ‘uns in Haneke’s village seem are as austere and pious as saints, but there is something very creepy about them. You just cannot quite put your finger on it. Bar one scene in which two boys fight the baron’s son for a whistle, the children are never shown doing anything wrong. Haneke lets the viewer infer that through suggestion, creating a sense of apprehension that permeates the film. The fact that Haneke doesn’t name most of his characters, but refer to them by generic names such as The Pastor or The Baron, adds to the unease. Who are these people?

Themes of sin and purity, innocence and guilt form the core of The White Ribbon.The title of the film refers to the white ribbon the pastor makes his children wear around their arms if they’ve committed a wrong. Like a scarlet letter, the ribbon reminds them and others of their shame.  In an interview at the 2009 Cannes film festival, where The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or, Haneke said he wanted to look at how children internalise the absolutised values of the adults around them. These absolutes, Haneke said, whether political or religious, “become inhuman and leads to terrorism.” Thus, a vicious cycle is born – parents, adults, those in authority bully children, their workers, those who are subject to them. The bullied in turn become the bullies and so it continues.

The film raises more questions than answers. The viewer never discovers who the perpetrators really are and there is no proper denouement to the plot. The film ends with the villagers gathering in church, faced with a war not only from outside but the uncertainty of an internal onslaught. All the audience is left with is the question: will the sins of the father keep being passed on?

Director & Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Rainer Bock

Awards: Academy Award Nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Achievement in Cinematography 2010; Won Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film; Won Palme d’Or at Cannes 2009

Rating: 4 out of 5

No more layers, please…

By the time you reach adulthood, you realise the saying “love and marriage goes together with a horse and carriage” really is a bunch of wish-wash, even in a place called Far Far Away. Forget Snow White and Rapunzel, it seems fairytales are not about ‘forever afters’ after all – just ask our favourite ogre, Shrek (Mike Myers).

In Shrek Forever After, the fourth and (reportedly) final instalment of the saga, Shrek gets the so-called ‘itch’. Despite being married to his one true love, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and having several children, Shrek feels trapped and longs for his days as a mean bachelor-ogre, alone in his swamp (fairytale for ‘man-cave’) with no responsibilities. Once a revered creature, Shrek is now resigned to autographing the pitchforks of the very villagers he used to frighten.

So, the friendly monster signs a deal with the proverbial devil, in this case, the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). Shrek is fooled into swapping one day of his current, menial life for a day free of nappies and arguments with his better half. But, being the power-hungry dwarf we came to know in the Grimm brothers’ fairytale, Rumpel takes the day Shrek was born. Now, Shrek is dumped into a Far Far Away which he never saved, where Rumpel is king, Shrek and Fiona never met and ogres are hunted creatures.

And thus, the journey of the hero begins, yet again. Shrek has to reacquaint himself with his best pal and ally, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and join the underground ogre-resistance, led by none other than Fiona: princess-turned-warrior a lá Joan of Arc. Shrek also has to convince a much more cynical Fiona to fall in love with him again and give him “true love’s first kiss”, otherwise the day will run out and he’ll cease to be.

Shrek Forever After is an average animated family film, which lacks the originality and wit of the first two (the third being the predictable prelude to the fourth). The story is tired and Disney would do well to leave it be now. The most stimulating thing about the film was making me wonder whether children will pick up on the theme that marriage is entrapment and children a career-killer. Sure, the film has the obligatory happy ending but how many cycles of misery, happy ending, misery, happy ending must one endure? While the new 3D version of Shrek adds some visual interest, this ogre is best left alone, forever after.

Director: Mike Mitchell
Cast: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas
Rating: 2½ out of 5

‘All Things Wise and Wonderful…’

When Charles Darwin wrote what is one of the most groundbreaking works ever written he was well aware the kind of repercussions it would have. Darwin delayed finishing and publishing On The Origin of Species for years, realising it would shake the very foundations of both science and religion.

Darwin’s theories on natural selection and transmutation explained how species adapted to changing conditions, in other words, how they evolved. The implications were immense: the earth was shown to be much older than a mere few thousand years and the idea of creatures being created in isolation and independently of one another no longer held water. In short, the determinism of the Church in its approach to life and humanity was proven wrong.

Jon Amiel’s film, Creation, is about the life of Darwin (played superbly by Paul Bettany) and his immense personal struggle in writing On The Origin, which was finally published in 1859. Darwin had studied to become a parson and was a firm believer in God when he rejected theology because of a keen interest in plants. He’d had no formal training in botany when he joined the HMS Beagle on a five-year voyage across the world as a researcher, yet, he filled notebook upon notebook with observations, hypotheses and drawings.

The film focuses on Darwin’s relationship with his deeply devout wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and the strain science puts on their marriage. Their relationship is further tested by Darwin’s inability to come to terms with the death of his daughter, Annie (Martha West).

While Amiel demonstrates Darwin’s keen sense of observation through beautifully-crafted close-ups of nature and its life-cycles, some explanation of his theories would have gone a long way to highlighting exactly why they were, and remain, so controversial. Bettany shows his true calibre as the angst-ridden scientist wracked by guilt over the fact that while he may unravel the secrets of life, he cannot preserve it. 

The scenes in which Annie’s ghost haunts Darwin are somewhat emotionally ‘overcharged’, resulting in the viewer feeling desensitised after one too many appearances by the apparition. However, I did find myself unashamedly captivated by a scene in which Darwin and an orang-utan reaching out to one another in a mirror of Michelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Creation is about one man’s war, not with God, but with himself. A fellow scientist, congratulated Darwin on his discoveries by saying, “You have killed God, Sir”, which is not at all what Darwin had set out to do. Ironically, Darwin barely mentions the word ‘evolution’ in On The Origin of Species, with the only reference in the very last sentence of the book. For all its faults, the film manages to embody Darwin’s belief that “there is grandeur in this view of life … [and] whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Director: Jon Amiel
Cast: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones
Rating: 4 out of 5