The White Ribbon
According to Michael Haneke, the kids (plus the parents and basically everyone else in the community) are not alright
The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Leonie Benesch
Over the course of his controversy-baiting career, Austrian auteur Michael Haneke has created can’t-look-away, punch-to-the-gut films that hover somewhere somewhere between the joyous sadism of Quentin Tarantino and the staunch-yet-demented ethicality of the Brothers Grimm. Pore over Benny’s Video, Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf, Caché and the scabrous Funny Games (both the European and U.S. versions) if you’re up for the challenge. Are these upstanding, heavily moralistic tales about sex and violence and the pop cultural worship thereof, or does Haneke simply love a good wallow in mankind’s seedy, rotten shadow? You tell me.
Haneke’s latest is the double Academy Award-nominated mystery drama The White Ribbon. The film is set in an idyllic, isolated village in northern Germany in the days leading up to World War I. The cinematography (which landed this film one of its two Oscar noms) is done up in sharp black-and-white, evoking the glowing contrasts of old silver gelatin prints. More than that, though, Haneke is trying to bring to mind the moral absolutism of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s early, black-and-white films. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Haneke envisions The White Ribbon sitting on a video store shelf right next to Bergman’s brutally virtuous Virgin Spring (which, let’s not forget, was eventually remade as The Last House on the Left).
The story concerns this group of villagers (most referred to by such dispassionate titles as The School Teacher, The Doctor, The Baron, The Tutor, The Pastor and The Steward) who begin to fall prey to a series of mysterious accidents. “Accidents” is probably the wrong word. Clearly, these things are intentional, engineered by some unknown person or persons: The doctor is injured when his horse stumbles over a tripwire, a barn is torched, a child is abused, animals are killed. The only logical conclusion is that someone in this pastoral village is responsible. And given the amount of seething anger, repressed violence and abusive authority around town, there is no shortage of potential perpetrators.
If you’ve seen any of Haneke’s previous films, you’ll know that he’s in no hurry to solve this mystery. Haneke prefers mysteries that have no clear-cut solutions, puzzles that spiral in on themselves tighter and tighter until they collapse into lightless black holes. I’ll refrain from discussing Haneke’s M.-Night-Shyamalan-with-a-brain plot any further, leaving viewers to discover and debate it at will. I will say that you’re better off not prepping yourself for a generic serial killer plot. This isn’t about individual evil. This is about a culture, a society, that’s generating sickness from within.
For the most part, life goes on in the village: Few residents become absorbed in the whys and wherefores of their tragedies. Is this all one great big parable about the growing seeds of fascism and Nazism in central Europe? Probably. Is it an acknowledgment that in more provincial parts of the world the capriciousness of death is just another part of daily life? Possibly.
The White Ribbon is measured, slow-burn filmmaking that doesn’t provide too many easy answers. The storytelling is loose, flitting from one character to another. Shots are often languorous and static, forcing audiences to go on a sort of “hidden picture” quest, searching the frame for meaning. It isn’t, to be fair, a film for everyone. Even those used to art house films may find Haneke’s moralizing disingenuous—a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to condemning cruelty. And yet, Haneke proves his mastery of the art form, keeping tension levels high from start to finish. Personally, I admire his ability to hold two seemingly contrary positions at one time. (Creating some awesomely cathartic violence in Funny Games, for example, and then directly insulting audiences for reveling in it.) Let his latest film do its magic, let it work its way into your brain and quietly fester there. Do that, and you’re likely to get a periodic shudder for weeks to come contemplating the nature of evil. European evil, anyway.