The White Ribbon
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonie Benesch and Leonard Proxauf
Goes well with: Caché, Downfall, The Lives of Others
The village in which Michael Haneke's new film, The White Ribbon, takes place is unremarkable. It's a small German town, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else and everyone else's business. The year is 1911, and the community is prosperous enough. At least, it's prosperous enough until strange things start to happen. A wire is stretched across the road, causing the town's doctor to fall from his horse. Children are beaten, property damaged, animals killed. The villagers are terrified, because this is a form of terrorism, after all.
Yes, that's a terrific amount for any community to endure. But The White Ribbon, shot in black-and-white so gorgeous that it looks like a Bergman film, is more than a whodunit. Narrated by the town's schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) many years after the fact, we learn of his suspicions that the town's children may be the culprits. But even if they are guilty—and Haneke never says for sure—the whodunit isn't nearly as important as the whytheydunit.
And that's what the filmmaker gives us clues about as he delves deeper into the lives of the children and their parents. The baron is a condescending, ill-tempered member of the gentry. The doctor is an emotional terrorist. And the pastor represents a dark part of the society that metes out humiliation and punishment while promoting ritual repression, shame and self-loathing.
So, when the pastor's son confesses to masturbating, his hands are bound at night when he tries to sleep. Children are beaten and shamed, and there's abuse of every measure—sexual, physical and emotional. But when the schoolteacher brings his concerns to the local authorities, he's shouted down and humiliated by an establishment that's terrified to confront the fact that its own children are opressing those weaker than them simply because that's what they've seen their parents do. The pastor's eldest children are forced to wear white ribbons to remind them of their purity, but how can they be pure when they come of age in a repressed culture that, once the surface is scratched, is found to be so filthy?
The White Ribbon is a terribly disturbing film, but it comes complete with gorgeous cinematography and wonderful production design and features smart and sensitive acting. Haneke is one of those directors who knows exactly what he's trying to say and exactly how he intends to say it, but he's never overt about his message, allowing viewers to make their own decisions. He lets the camera follow his actors in long, extended takes that are emotionally devastating or, alternatively, uplifting.
Is this an examination of the roots of Nazism? Or is it an allegory and examination of extremism in any form? Different people will reach different conclusions, but I suspect the truth is both. Three decades hence, these kids will have formed their own Aryan brotherhood (and sisterhood), and they'll be wearing swastikas in the same place their arms once carried those white ribbons, as they merrily stuff Jews, gays, the disabled and anyone else who doesn't fit into their Final Solution into ovens.
The violence of The White Ribbon is painful to endure, but it's hardly a film about violence at all. Haneke is taking on larger issues, examining the roots of oppression as a consequence of oppression. It's keenly thought-out and perfectly self-assured, adroitly pushing very specific buttons in the viewer's psyche. It takes a remarkable filmmaker to create a film that has all the answers without giving any of them to you.
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