Part Of The Picture: Village of the Damned

Posted on February 26, 2010


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FEB 27, 2010 – BEFORE WE DESCEND INTO the first black-and-white image of this austerely beautiful Oscar nominee, an unseen narrator informs us, from behind a black screen, “I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I know only by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered.” The black screen slowly brightens into a bucolic tract of land, framed by scrawny trees and the skeleton of a paddock, and the narrator continues, “But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.” And as a distant figure on a horse rides into view, the narrator adds, “It all began, I think, with the doctor’s riding accident. After his dressage session on the Baron’s estate, he was headed home to see if any patients had arrived. Entering the garden, his horse tripped on a wire strung between two trees.”

Who could have done this, and why? That, largely, is the question behind the mystifying chain of cruelties – a few accidental, most entirely intentional – that visits the German village of Eichwald in the months leading up to World War I. Subsequently, the wife of one of the Baron’s tenant farmers dies after falling through the rotting floorboards of a sawmill, the pastor’s son balances himself precariously on the railing of a bridge and claims that “[I] gave God a chance to kill me,” a farmhand with a scythe hacks away at the Baron’s cabbage field and eviscerates the crop, the Baron’s son goes missing and is found with his trousers pulled down and his buttocks bleeding from cane strokes, an infant is exposed to the cold in the peak of winter, a barn at the estate is set on fire, the widower tenant farmer is found hanging, a handicapped child is beaten and almost blinded, and the pastor’s caged bird is found impaled on a pair of scissors.

These baroque cruelties are complemented by the benign ones, the intimate ones that bubble up without word or warning. After the riding accident, when we first see the doctor (Rainer Bock) with his mistress, they are very picture of lived-in domesticity, in the kind of relationship that feels as right as an old shirt whose colours have run and whose hems have come undone but which is still the most comfortable item in the wardrobe. This state of hard-won grace is evident in the scene he makes love to her – in the way she helps him button up because his arm still hurts, in the nonchalant manner she hoists her underwear up beneath her skirts and tucks in a stray hair before joining him at the dinner table, in the quiet clink of their wine goblets and their unhurried chatter about the children she’s helped raise after the demise of the doctor’s wife, and in the moment where she places her head down on his hand, one of those gestures so penetrating and personal that you want to look away.

But the next time we see them, again in a scene featuring sex, he asks her to stop. When she looks up, he says, “Why all the effort? Don’t look so dumbfounded. You don’t lack talent. I just can’t do it with you anymore. To be truthful, you disgust me. Can’t you finish your work? I don’t want to spend the night here.” He buttons up, this time by himself. She asks what she did to him and he snarls, “My God, you’ve done nothing to me! You’re ugly, messy, flabby and have bad breath. Will that do?” And as if to indicate the end of their intimacy and in order to put her in her place as servant, he assigns her a chore, “The cover has to be sterilised. Don’t sit there looking like death warmed over. The world won’t collapse. Not on you, or on me. I can’t go on with this. That’s all.”

He bows his head, as if penitent, but his subsequent words dispel this notion. “I’ve really tried to think of another woman while making love to you. One who smells good, who’s young, less decrepit than you, but my imagination can’t manage it. In the end, it’s you again, and then I feel like puking, and am embarrassed at myself. So what’s the point?’ She says, “I know I’m not much to look at. My bad breath comes from my ulcer, you know that. It didn’t bother you in the past. I had it when your wife was alive.” He retorts, “Spare me these sordid details. Let me reassure you, it always disgusted me. After Julie’s death, I wanted to ease my pain with anyone. I would have screwed a cow. Whores are too far from here, and once every two months isn’t enough for me, even though I’m getting on. So skip acting like a martyr and scram. Get out! Don’t you have any pride?”

She replies, “There’s no room for any with you… Why do you despise me? For helping to raise the boy? For watching you finger your daughter and saying nothing?” He slaps her across the face but she doesn’t even pause to register pain. “For listening to you claim how you loved Julie, when everyone knew you treated her as badly as me?” He walks to his desk. “That’s it. Now get up. I have work to do.” As he seats himself, she stands up. “You can’t afford to get rid of me. Who’ll do all the dirty work for you? Who’ll help you with the kids, and your practice? You don’t mean what you’re saying. You want to see how far you can go: ‘Will she take it? Can I drag her even lower?’ I’m tired too.” He’s been sifting through papers on the desk during her outburst. But now, he looks up and remarks, without raising his voice, “My God! Why don’t you just die?”

Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009, German, Italian, Polish, Latin; aka The White Ribbon). Directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign