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A Magazine for Sheffield

Three Films - Three Decades (Part 2).


The most important film to be made and released in the last decade is not about the dawn of the 21st century or the socio-philosophical questions that come with it. Shot in black & white, in a language that is far from mainstream, it's not even set in a recognisably contemporary world.

At a time when the requirement of immediacy implies, for example, delivering your film in English, Michael Haneke's Das weiße Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, 2009) remains defiant and, like all of his work, including the brutal Funny Games (1997) and the mesmerising The Piano Teacher (2001), persistently specific.

Even the fact that its aesthetics and pace are more reminiscent of the earlier films of Ingmar Bergman than of anything else that is currently made shows singularity and understanding of its own message and material. These days, European films tend to comply, by default and Anglo-Saxon influence, with a general cynicism and need to come across as clever, whilst still shying away from anything that could be perceived as pretentious. The naivety of tone and visual simplicity of The White Ribbon are paradoxically the boldest statements a filmmaker can make.

The film concerns the unreliable recounting of events in the fictitious Protestant village of Eichwald, Germany before World War I. We're introduced to a series of mysterious incidents which refine in cruelty as the narrative unfolds and seem to point towards the local children as culprits from the outset.

Its title refers to the white ribbon the children are forced to wear around their arm as a reminder of the innocence they've strayed from. The fact that their punishment stems from trivial things that go against the strict abidance to Protestant views (and not for the disturbing ritualistic crimes they perpetrate) is as crucial as the unresolved ending, in which the only certainty is historical: the declaration of war on Serbia by Austria-Hungary.

So how can this be the defining cinematic work of the last decade?

Amongst the many readings the film elicits are those of 'the birth of fundamentalism' and 'the roots of fascism'. Accurate as they might be - and pertinent to the idea of the film as a reflection of the times in which it was made - I propose something else. The highly intelligent Haneke doesn't leave a single detail to chance and it's in his structuring of this feudal society that rests the answer to the above question.

The triumvirate composed of a puritanical pastor, a sexually cruel doctor and a morally weak baron is used to bring specific issues to the foreground. Whilst the latter highlights the tradition of landowners employing an underclass of foreign workers but failing to understand or fully support them; the former's function exposes religion as the backbone of discipline, control and ultimate success by means of suppression of earthly pleasures that defines those who continue to lead the modern world to this date.

What The White Ribbon dares to expose is the underlying cruelty or inhumanity that has trickled down successive generations in societies that conduct their affairs under the Protestant flag. For every righteous deed, performed in accordance with the Word of the Lord, there's a reprimand. A punishment geared towards eradicating personality and making everyone more like everyone else. And the more people think and act the same, the more they're prepared to work towards the success of a nation. Sounds uncomfortably familiar, doesn't it?

The unequal map of the current unified Europe speaks volumes. The White Ribbon tells us where it all comes from.



The 20s were the pinnacle of the creation of modern cinema. Genre, The Big Five, imports from Europe and the world's first film with sound all flowered, launching the film industry with a rather large bang. Although the very first 'talkie' film didn't get released until 1927, the seven years before were full of tension, excitement and the least of my favourites: the creation of 'movie stars'.

Firstly: the Big Five. They were created at the beginning of the decade and although we have long since left the studio system, there are still a few studios that dominate cinema today. The studio system was created as a long-term contract for film stars. They would sign with the production company and be guaranteed work for a set amount of years. It ensured that America remained at the top of the filmmaking industry throughout the decade. The Big Five were Warner Bros, Paramount (or Famous Players- Lasky Corporation if you're REALLY smart), RKO (owned by one Mr Howard Hughes), Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) and 20th Century Fox. These studios created some of the most iconic films, all with deep social and cultural messages.

Throughout the 1920s, there wasn't an abundance of themes being explored except for one. The theme that most recurred, time and time again, was that of being the 'outsider'. As an example, there's the German Expressionist film Nosferatu: eine symphonie des neuens (1922). Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and all those who could be classed as outsiders were here symbolised and demonised as a vampire from the underworld - ratlike in appearance, evil beyond all measure, preying on the innocent people of Germany and its small towns.

But it wasn't just Nosferatu that did this. These threats were created within film so that the audience could escape from reality for a while and focus on conquering the fears of everyday life, just as the film offered. Unfortunately this was also the case for the Americans and the British, as we both had villains who were German or foreigners from another country with whom we had a threat of war with. The world's first 'talking' film The Jazz Singer (1927) would be classed as racist by today's standards, due to the fact that at the very end of the film Al Jolson 'blacks' himself up to become a minstrel. It must be said that during the 1920s minstrels were a large part of popular culture and, due to the lack of black actors, white people often blacked themselves up, although mostly to be the villain or to mock those of colour. However, the scenes that star Jolson as a minstrel are for the most part free of racial commentary. They are not of a racist nature; they simply depict a culture that we no longer accept as politically correct.

This decade was also marked by the creation of genre. Hammer horrors of the 30s and 40s became popular due to the German Expressionist movement and other imports that came into Britain and America during the 20s. Documentary became a new genre with the feature-length film Nanook of the North (1922). As well as this - and in part due to the advent of talkies - a brand new foray into musicals and melodramas flourished, creating some of the most iconic film stars. This idea of making films according to genre meant that there was always going to be an audience, and constantly changing trends allowed studios to agree that there would always be someone to see the film they had just released, whether it was in mass demand or not.

The 20s were a formidable era in cinema. They saw the creation of big studios and many of the cinematic techniques still employed today. They also started the careers of some of the stars idolised on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and by film fanatics all over the world. It was the beginning for the humble genre film and released some of the most (not to overuse the word) iconic films in the history of cinema. It is an era that can hardly be challenged.


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