In the year preceding the start of World War I, a small German village is quietly rocked by a series of cruel events (crimes against the seemingly innocent) committed by unknown culprits in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The town’s children are both potential victims and suspects as the twisted natures of their parents’ sins are soon laid bare. In the midst of paranoia and gossip (though not as pointedly delicious as Clouzot’s Le Corbeau), a kind schoolteacher woos a sweetly naive nanny, a baron’s marriage disintegrates, a steward’s family crumbles, a pastor spares no rod and a doctor commits the greatest of sins. Originally conceived as a mini-series, there are many narrative threads and characters to keep track of, and Haneke provides glimpses into the varied lives of the different classes at work in the village and constructs something akin to a psychological case study of the personality types on display. One wonders how much more some of the stories would’ve opened up had Haneke the luxury of six or more hours to weave his tale.
The biggest problem with a Michael Haneke film is that it’s a Michael Haneke film. He’s not a filmmaker you want to go into cold. You either have better read up on him or seen at least one of his other films (I highly recommend Cache) to know what you’re getting into. He meticulously handcrafts his motion pictures like a scholar writes a persuasive essay. His static camera displays a point, counterpoint and then leaves room for “discussion” where the audience is left to make up their mind. Do you read The White Ribbon as a provocative yet cold period-piece soap opera, or do you delve deeper into the subtext?
Like all his films, this one is frustrating in that he refuses to play by the rules of the genre or deliver any kind of catharsis for the audience. He allows little room for emotional connection, though there are plenty of emotionally charged confrontations between characters including one conversation between a doctor and a midwife so wretchedly bitter that my mouth dropped. And there is somewhat of a departure from previous works in that there are more close-ups, mostly of children afraid or crying. There’s nary a scene of actual violence on-screen spare for a slap or a shove, but the threat of it and knowledge of it lying just around the corner permeate every scene creating a lingering dread. Horrible things happen, but scenes are cut just before anything is shown in graphic detail almost as if Haneke desires to torture audiences who have been conditioned by Hollywood to revel in the more repulsive forms of entertainment by always leaving the most salacious details out of the picture. Finally there is a marked departure visually with the brilliantly composed black-and-white cinematography of Christian Berger (an ironically appropriate name) that is defined by haunting shots of fields covered in snow, barns, churches and unpaved village streets full of children.
So what is Micheal Haneke telling us with The White Ribbon? Religious oppression that supports a rigid class structure, sexual repression and sanctions child abuse while providing a breeding ground for fear and paranoia is the perfect recipe for not just personal depravity but a communal movement towards fascism? Perhaps being ripped from that toxic environment and plunged into violently tumultuous world events (the first Word War) only to be sent back crushed and defeated is why Nazism sprang up so naturally in Germany? After all, it was these German children who when grown traded in their white armbands for red ones. But can we paint an entire nation is such broad strokes? Is this village truly a microcosm of the world’s greater ills?
***POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD. READ WITH CAUTION***
What makes the film so interesting, though, is that not everyone is shown to be so inherently rotten. Some of the characters truly are innocent and display natural predispositions towards moral decency and compassion. Take for example the little boy who gives his father (the pastor) the injured bird he nursed back to health all by himself as a replacement for his father’s pet bird that was killed. It’s a most telling and chilling moment as earlier the father had lectured the boy about taking on the responsibility of the hurt bird and how it would have to be set free once healed because unlike their pet bird, this rescued one had never known captivity…only freedom. In a most cruel twist of fate, it’s an act of kindness that results in the now healed bird receiving a life sentence confined to a cage.
Meanwhile, the two nicest people in town…the schoolteacher and his soon-to-be-wife simply walk away from it all (partly being swept up by larger events and partly of their own accord) after the schoolteacher confronts the pastor with his theory on who committed the crimes only to be rebuked.
Perhaps the real lesson of The White Ribbon is that evil is a crass opportunist. All it needs to take hold is for a few good people to turn their heads and walk away.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Like many of the great films from 2009, The White Ribbon is a good old-fashioned “film to talk about”. Here’s what others are saying:
- Check out this brilliant interpretation of The White Ribbon as a horror film by Alan Nothnagle over at This is Berlin
- Haneke’s style is discussed and his work compared to that of Lars Von Trier over at The Forced Perspective
- The “hypnotic and horrific power of Haneke’s cinema” is discussed at Tales of a Cinesthete
- Jake Cole composes a monumental post to the film’s power over at Not Just Movies. (Added 4/29/10)