The White Ribbon
2009 (Austria / Germany / France / Italy)
Director: Michael Haneke
Viewed: March 3, 2010
Format: Theatrical Print (Landmark Plaza Frontenac)
A- - There is a mystery at the core of Michael Haneke’s Palm d’Or-clinching new film, The White Ribbon, but it is not a mystery that requires a solution. Unlike the director’s brilliant splatter of post-modern mindfuckery, Caché, his latest feature does not wander outside the frame in the pursuit of answers. The culprit who has committed The White Ribbon’s bizarre misdeeds is hiding in plain sight. Set in the rigidly Protestant German hamlet of Eichwald just before World War I, the film presents the events of a single year, a year in which a series of peculiar and disturbing misfortunes befall the community. Someone in the village is clearly responsible for these misfortunes, but sorting out whodunit is, at best, tangential to the film’s striking emotional and intellectual vigor. Maintaining a mannered, somber tone that swathes the viewer in Old Testament dread, Haneke uses his setting and plot as portals through which he accesses a breathtaking array of themes. Impeccably constructed and exquisitely shot in black-and-white, The White Ribbon will frustrate viewers seeking dramatic jolts. This film is all trembling and lip-licking, a work brimming with the sour-gut sensation that something is wrong, just out of sight.
The story, which spans the summer of 1913 to the summer of 1914, is narrated by a nameless school teacher (Christian Friedel, with voiceover by Ernst Jacobi). His viewpoint is that of a rational, somewhat perplexed young man, an outsider from a neighboring town and an emissary for the twentieth century modernity that Eichwald has steadfastly resisted. However, Haneke shows us events that this schoolmaster does not witness, and thereby grants us glimpses of the rot that his narrator senses only vaguely. The film begins with a sinister mishap: the village doctor is seriously injured when his horse trips over a wire strung just outside his home. The question of who would set such a trap (and why) haunts the film, but this puzzle is quickly compounded by others. The story proceeds with chilly evenness and yet mounting anxiety through the year, as a succession of strange mishaps and crimes accrue: a sawmill worker is killed in a fall; the local baron’s son is trussed up and whipped; an infant suffers an illness; a barn is burned; a boy with Down syndrome is brutally beaten. For the village residents, these myriad troubles blur together and begin to smother them with aimless fears and suspicions.
The physical borders of the village rigorously bound the film’s action, and yet the cast of characters is vast. The oppressively patriarchal character of Eichwald’s social organization is reinforced by Haneke’s approach, which identifies and examines each family through its male head of household. Accordingly, we meet the baron and his wife and children; the pastor and his wife and children; the steward and his wife and children; and a farmer and his wife and children. This isn’t to say that the female characters are neglected, although they are often less emotionally rounded than their male counterparts. Rather, Haneke has tightly bound his film’s structure to its milieu. He alights on one family and then the next, absorbing how the village’s small calamities affect each clan. Overwhelmingly, the repercussions of the film’s events are discerned through the lens of each patriarch’s way of life, whether aristocrat or peasant. We witness the way each man dominates his family through a strictly enforced regimen of emotional and physical abuse, and then watch, numbed and apprehensive, as the ripples from these patterns of violence spread and collide with one another.
Two men stand outside this framework. The first is the narrator, a kindly bachelor who never seems wholly at ease with the village’s puritanical culture. He is smitten with the baron’s nanny, Eva (Leonie Benesch), a timid yet guileless girl who seems positively saintly compared to her fellow villagers. She accepts his courting with the faintest acknowledgement, but beneath their mutual shyness we can sense a longing for human warmth. Haneke approaches this sweet, chaste romance without a trace of condescension, employing it to unabashedly express the virtue of the narrator and his beloved. However, the film-maker is less enamored with facile contrasts than with the ways the romance subplot highlights the story’s more sinister aspects. When Eva objects to the schoolmaster’s suggestion of an un-chaperoned picnic off the beaten path, we sympathize with his disappointment, because we are privy to his honorable intentions. However, the village’s troubles have revealed the ugliness of the human heart, and what might seem like prudishness on her part reads instead as the sensible judgment of a woman who feels surrounded by malevolence.
Eichwald’s widower doctor (Rainer Bock) likewise fails to fit the preferred template of a patriarch with a submissive wife, but his situation is unusual in other ways. His control over his children is of a seemingly kindlier stripe, but also subtler and altogether more monstrous at its heart. Most of the villagers perceive him as an educated angel of mercy. The local midwife (Susanne Lothar), who faithfully serves him as an assistant, nanny, and lover, sees his dictatorial side, yet cannot wrest herself from his stranglehold. Occasionally, Haneke permits this cancerous relationship to wander into the hyperbolic, as when the doctor concludes a harrowing torrent of emotional abuse with a resigned sigh, “Why can’t you just die, already?” In the main, however, the film deftly succeeds in establishing the common strains of arrogance, resentment, and sadism that run through the village’s men. Fortunately, Haneke’s superb attentiveness to emotional detail prevents The White Ribbon from devolving into a glib indictment of everything white, male, and Christian. He conveys the hazards of Manichean condemnation not by shoehorning in sentiment, but by providing the narrative space to discover notes of sympathy for his characters’ often repugnant worldviews. By any yardstick, the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) is a vile authoritarian, but Haneke asks us to savor the wisdom in his advice to his son, who wishes to care for an injured bird. When the boy later offers the animal as a replacement for his father’s own dead parakeet, it is both a moment of learned submission to a feared patriarch and a gesture of love, and the delicate expression that plays across the pastor’s face registers both.
The question of who is responsible for the village’s misfortunes is never answered satisfactorily, although the narrator offers one possible explanation in the film’s final scenes. Tellingly, this does not draw the story to a conclusion, but deepens its mysteries and elaborates on its themes. Haneke emulates Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Fincher’s Zodiac by abandoning the necessity of resolution and embracing the mood of dissolution and despair that emerges from Not Knowing. However, whereas those films took up the corrosive effect of mysteries on communities and individuals as primary themes, The White Ribbon employs its strange events as incitements for broader explorations of the nature of evil, both in the context of its specific setting and more generally.
The solemn tone that predominates throughout the film belies the provocative character of Haneke’s purpose, but perhaps it should be obvious that the man who made Funny Games wouldn’t be satisfied with a mere starched period drama. The children of The White Ribbon are, of course, the Nazi generation, and Haneke has described the film as an investigation into the roots of authoritarianism, and specifically how Germany’s austere pre-Reich society could give rise to the defining evil of the twentieth century. The cusp-of-the-Great-War setting and disturbing depiction of pre-Industrial cultural norms position The White Ribbon for a cunning attack on conventional historical wisdom. The West has grown accustomed to the myth that World War I served as a kind of social dividing line between the pastoral simplicity of the Past and the crushing, dehumanizing Now, helped along by eloquent veterans such Tolkein, Lewis, and Germany’s own Remarque, who authored the ur-anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. The accepted narrative regards the Great War as a violent deflowering of the West’s supposed moral purity.
In The White Ribbon, Haneke assiduously and forcefully confronts this myth by starkly portraying the malevolence of the patriarchal Christian social structure that dominated agrarian Europe on the very eve of the war. His attack on the prevailing innocence/fall narrative also manifests in the film’s increasingly uneasy stance towards its own innocents, the children of Eichwald. By casting doubt on an accepted wisdom—the purity of childhood—the film undermines the metaphorical foundation of the Great War myth. What emerges from the film’s grim confines is a pessimistic rejection of the very notion of innocence, both as a moral state and as a framework for mythmaking. The White Ribbon acknowledges the power of such fictional ideals, whether social, spiritual, or sexual, but regards them as tools of obfuscation and tyranny. Haneke, who has developed a reputation as a provocateur rivaled only by that of von Trier, demonstrates the power of classic dramatic storytelling for focusing his righteous artistic scorn while also attending to his humane side. The result is gorgeous, morally forceful work, guaranteed to get under viewers’ skin and gnaw at them for years to come.