This week I saw a masterpiece. And I’m writing to urge you to see it. The German director Michael Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), is a cinematic midrash rooted in the problematic Biblical verse about God ‘visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generations’ (Exodus 34:7).
I won’t describe the plot of the film. Just to say the following. It is a mystery story. It is shot in stark black-and-white. It is set in 1913, in Germany. And it is an extraordinary exploration, through visual and verbal storytelling, of the history of Germany in the 20th century – a history that is both specific, and yet has moral and spiritual resonances for every society and every age. Including our own.
I have not seen a film like this since I first saw Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957). (1957 is not, I hasten to add, when I saw it). Haneke’s film bears comparison with his Swedish predecessor’s masterly oeuvre of psychological, historical and family dramas. And fifty years from now, this film will bear witness – if films are still being seen – to the mental world that led to the Shoah.
This is not a film about the Holocaust – but it is like a hologram where you see through the narrative into the future. I thought I saw Auschwitz in one scene – but maybe this was my imagination. This is a drama where – as in life – indeterminacy reigns. The narrator’s voice-over at the beginning talks of the way in which he “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country”. The “perhaps” - Samuel Beckett’s favourite word - is telling. Hearsay and conjecture, the fallibility of memory, the self-serving nature of memory – all are at stake, and in play, as the film progresses.
Like a Kafka parable, like a Biblical narrator, Haneke reveals and withholds. Meaning evolves, is disguised, and finally (if at all) is created by us the viewers. This is storytelling unlike anything you will see from Hollywood. It’s soul - filled with love and brutality and the way they become confused - is European. The film may have won this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes – but that isn’t why you should try to find time to see it. You should see it because you will be stimulated, provoked, enlivened – great art does that to us.
I don’t want to say much more about it – I know that my own experience when someone raves about something I ‘must’ see is that I’m invariably a bit disappointed. It never lives up the fantasy created by someone else’s excitement.