If Michael Haneke had made his Oscar nominated The White Ribbon for young adult audiences, it would probably look a lot like this. Indeed, young German school children again prove only too willing to turn on each other for murky reasons in Marcus Rosenmüller’s Little White Lies (a.k.a. Die Perlmutterfarbe, trailer here), which screens during the 2010 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
In 1931 Germany, Alexander’s school is divided into the A class and the B class. What started as an arbitrary administrational division has established two fairly rigid cliques. One fateful day an older student joins A class. The son of the local absentee industrialist, Langer Gruber is definitely trouble. Though wary of him, Alexander finds himself manipulated by the older boy. Through his own lies and cowardice, Alexander has victimized B-Karli, a fellow student from his rival class, partly through Gruber’s instigation. As a result, Alexander meekly submits when his sinister classmate organizes the A’s into a fascist gang. Wearing brown scarves instead of brown shirts, it is obvious what Gruber’s anti-B campaign represents. (In this context, Gruber’s name is actually an odd distraction, being a relatively common Jewish surname.)
Unlike Haneke’s film, Lies is indeed a children’s film. It is told from Alexander’s perspective, focusing almost exclusively on its juvenile characters. With the exception of his mother Klari, the adults of Lies are almost entirely caricatures of academic authority figures, like the disembodied voices of Charlie Brown’s teachers. However, the underlying themes are quite adult and sophisticated, even though plot points involving the boy genius experiments of Alexander’s estranged friend Maulwurf often give the film a slightly Goonies-like vibe.
Still, Rosenmüller handles the film’s evolution in tone from realistic coming-of-age story to cerebral fable surprisingly smoothly. Yet, the rather strange fusion of mature allegory and kid-friendly slapstick action might well be seen by American distributors as neither fish nor fowl, likely limiting domestic screening opportunities to the festival circuit. That would be unfortunate though, because there is some worthy substance to Lies. It vividly dramatizes how one deceit can snowball out of control, offering an efficacious vehicle for parents to discuss tolerance and personal responsibility.
Though often dark, Lies has a consistently classy sheen thanks to the artful contributions of cinematographer Torsten Breuer and composer Gerd Baumann. It also features some very strong work from its youthful cast, particularly Markus Krojer as the tormented Alexander. Among the adults, Brigitte Hobmeier easily takes the honors, portraying Klari as a loving but realistically flawed mother.
Not nearly as ominous as White Ribbon, Lies actually finds some measure of hope for humanity. Still, it makes an intriguing companion piece to Haneke’s (hopefully Oscar-winning) film. While parents and children might be watching it on different levels, both should find it quite a satisfying film experience. It screens again Sunday after next (3/21) at the IFC Center, as the NYICFF continues over the next two weekends.