I watched these two films the same week, which I don't recommend doing without a prescription, but I do recommend both films. Both are streaming on Netflix.
Of the doc films I’ve watched about the wars I think Restrepo might be the best. These guys, both the soldiers and the filmmakers, have giant balls. Sorry to muck it up with locker room talk, but I don’t know how else to say it. It’s a frightening place they’re in. There’s a lot of heart wrenching stuff here, the soldier’s lives are terrible both because of the danger and their loss but also because of the emotional damage they profess. I was also disturbed by the strange culture collision that’s depicted. The soldiers and locals in the film belong to drastically different cultures with drastically different value systems and they also seem to belong to completely different centuries. Maybe even millennia. Formally speaking, the filmmakers didn’t need to frame the film around the charismatic young soldier “Restrepo” quite the way they did but they kept that part light enough that I never yelled “trite!” I only mumbled “device”.
If Restrepo doesn’t send you rushing to the pharmacy for a late night serotonin bump, then try The White Ribbon to provoke that emotional freefall. This is a beautiful but austere drama that’s set in Germany just before the start of WWI. Michael Haneke is an Austrian director that I would describe as meticulous and utterly fearless. He tackles the scariest, darkest, harshest corners of the human psyche with agonizing delicacy. If Van Trier is the enfant terrible then Haneke might be his wise, steady handed Grandfather. And as a family they may need to check into to a clinic to find out if their chauvinism is hereditary. Von Trier, I think it’s very fair to say, is inclined to use vulnerable female characters as dramatic devices not as a point of view. Give him a gentle female willow and he’ll have her bleeding before the second act. Haneke might have something similar going on, but I’ll withhold judgment. I’ve only seen two of his films. I’ll watch another one soon to determine exactly what type of crazy he is.
The White Ribbon is also a tableau of European peasant life before WWI (in this respect, a family member of The Tree of Wooden Clogs) that if you don’t know, and I don’t, seems absolutely authentic. While watching I found myself reflecting on my time in Lithuania imagining the brutality of that life and the easy jump from there to the later horrors of war and holocaust in what otherwise appear to be charming villages. And I also found myself revisiting my high school Hawthorne education; The White Ribbon is channeling the same puritanical essence, albeit more critically and less allegorically than Hawthorne, but the brutality is a match. And perhaps this is where my suspicion of Haneke’s chauvinism comes from – like Hawthorne, in the telling of pathologically austere religious (Western) societies one inevitably ends up back in the Garden of Eden, where women always commit the original sin. But that’s just a hunch, like I said, I need to see more. Either way, he’s a phenomenal director.
In terms of the trauma these films will wreak on you, using my proprietary ICB* scale I would give Restrepo a 40 and The White Ribbon a 25. Yes it’s sad but true, fiction often hurts more. I would recommend a buffer of at least a week between them.
*The ICB scale is based on the novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. To experience 0 on the scale read ICB in the depths of an Eastern European winter night (preferably a Post Soviet society) with a hangover and supplement your horror with at least six tracks from Radiohead’s Amniesiac album.