The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke’s masterpiece. It is not a movie about abstract concepts or a director’s power over his characters – well, at least it’s not just about those things. In his previous films (most notoriously Cache and Funny Games) Haneke tortured his characters by imposing the author’s omnipresent power upon them, driving them to madness or suicide. When that didn’t work, he would just plain murder them. In The White Ribbon, Haneke hands his characters over to an even crueler master – themselves. It is a startling and jarring examination of what he describes as “the origin of every type of terrorism”, as well as an exploration of revenge, suspicion, abuse, and of course, evil. (This being a Michael Haneke film, every time you see ‘evil’ mentioned in the review, feel free to interpret it as ‘humanity’.)
The picture takes place during the months leading up to World War 1 in a small village in Northern Germany. A local teacher (Christian Friedel as a young man, Ernst Jacobi as the elder) now in his twilight years recounts a series of bizarre events that once took place in his village. It all begins with a mysterious incident that leaves the village’s doctor injured and the locals without medical aid. No one is ever caught for setting the trap that led to the doctor’s ‘accident’, and it turns out to be the first in a series of inexplicably horrific events. Perhaps explanation could have been found if the villagers weren’t so intent on firing accusations at one another, growing suspicious of their brethren, and in such denial of the evil in their own home. They’re preoccupied. The devil isn’t just concerned with idle hands.
As filmgoers have been trained to notice, the village seems over-run by creepily wide-eyed children, curiously at the site of nearly every tragedy. They express concern for the injured parties; maybe they’re genuine, maybe they’re not. This being a Michael Haneke film, you have to come terms with the fact he will not reveal to you the answers that you seek. Sure, you could come to your own conclusion regarding the culprits, but doing so would be beside the point. The ‘why’ is not important. Instead, we are forced to process the consequences, knowing that this horror has happened, was always going to happen and will continue to happen for decades to come.
The White Ribbon is shot in stunning black and white by the worthy Oscar nominee Christian Belger, who previously filmed Haneke’s previous films The Piano Teacher and Cache. The camera, much like in these aforementioned films, lingers for an inordinate amount of time. Your eye desperately attempts to find something to focus on. When it eventually figures out where you are supposed to look, it’s hard not to feel a sense of relief, as well as thanks that Berger’s expertly composed shot was so beautiful to enjoy in the meantime. In Cache, these endless shots were intentionally used to torment both the audience and the film’s characters. Here, they capture and highlight the film’s most imposing character – the village. The largest house of evil; home to the farms, the church, the mansions, and all the unspeakable atrocities that will eventually spill into the rest of Europe as the local’s leave the village for war. It is the most unsettling character in a movie full of unsettling characters, and it will be remembered as one of the most terrifying film locales in history.
Attempts at discussing the actual meaning of Haneke’s film and exploration of the picture’s metaphors deserve more room than can be provided in this short review (and can’t be discussed in an article deliberately avoiding spoilers). Although Haneke is ambiguous with his villains, he’s never been ambiguous with his messages. In the film, one young boy has his hands tied before bed every night, so that he doesn’t succumb to his desire to touch himself. Ironically, it feels as if Haneke has imposed the same constraints upon himself in The White Ribbon. Funny Games can only be referred to as cinematic self-pleasure, so it’s nice to see the Austrian director restrain himself, refocus his energy, and deliver a genuinely haunting and insightful picture, instead of another lecture about how audiences are eager to enjoy torture-porn.
Does The White Ribbon accurately portray “the origin of every type of terrorism” as the director intends? Well, the film is typically aggressive, and you’d be hard pressed to disagree with Haneke’s nihilistic findings, even if the film basically concludes that evil is everywhere, unstoppable, and requires only human nature to thrive. But in all the darkness, Haneke finds some light. Our narrator, the kind-hearted teacher, is more concerned with romancing the local nanny Eva than of the growing evil in his village. Although he exists alongside the other nameless adults, he finds in young Eva some purity and some goodness where few would expect to find it. For once, it seems as if Michael Haneke does not hate his characters. Or perhaps he still does. He creates (some) good people, only to subject them to the greatest tragedy of all – the rest of history.