A tautly constructed whodunit set on the eve of World War I in a staunchly Protestant village in northern Germany. The village is plagued by a series of mysterious accidents – the doctor tumbles from his horse, a farmer’s wife falls to her death from a barn loft – which become increasingly more sinister and brutal. Neighbour turns against neighbour, even as the cruelty pervading the village breeds fresh atrocities.
2009 Palme D’Or winning writer/director Michael Haneke has always relished the role of provocateur. Subverting what he views as Hollywood’s mind-numbing, crowd-pleasing tactics, he has deliberately courted controversy in his best known movies, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. The confronting nature of some of his films has polarised audiences and critics – some found the apocalyptic The Time of the Wolf virtually unwatchable. But at his best, as he is with White Ribbon, Haneke’s fusion of art and ideas is unsurpassed.
The Cannes winner impressed audiences as diverse as international critics (a complex electorate in itself), the main jury (home to edgy tastes, like president Isabelle Huppert) and a more sedate ecumenical jury, the French National educational system. Rarely has such a chilling film met with such a unanimously warm reception – Haneke’s Riviera haul was four prizes, and many more will follow.
Artistically and intellectually White Ribbon is compelling, gripping viewing. Like Hitchcock and other directors, Haneke subscribes to the view that man’s greatest horror comes not from the external forces favoured by Hollywood but from within. The director is described by The New York Times as 'the Minister of Fear’ and his work is psychologically disturbing and probing. But in White Ribbon his approach is much more subtle and muted and thus more potent, than in the graphically confronting Funny Games (1997 and remade in 2008).
The film’s surface is rural pastoral, a snapshot of a village in Northern Germany just prior to the outbreak of World War I, where a series of strange and sinister incidents appear as random inexplicable acts but point to a deeper, more pervasive malaise.
In this feudal community a deliberate trip wire stretched between trees causes the doctor’s horse to throw him, causing serious injury; a farm worker’s wife dies falling through a faulty barn door; a young boy is beaten and left tied upside down. Interweaving themes of discipline and guilt, repression and cruelty, malice and abuse, craftily and subtly Haneke plants the seeds of unease, fear and suspicion.
Unlike the linear narrative compass of the visceral Funny Games or The Piano Teacher, Haneke constructs his narrative through the observation of the village tapestry, loosely interweaving the lives of numerous inhabitants (impeccably performed by a large ensemble cast of around 30 characters).
The incidents appear to be linked to a group of children from the local school and choir, some brutalised by their parents. Working within a whodunnit thriller, Haneke is more interested in raising questions than in providing answers.
The ribbon of the title (ironically a general symbol of non-violence, particularly towards women) represents a symbol of guilt, handed out by the pastor as a 'badge’ of dishonor, with which his own guilty children are branded. Accompanying punishments generate an eerie climate of dysfunction, tyranny and fear. The authority figures in this patriarchal feudal society – known only by their generic titles (the Baron, doctor, and pastor) – exhibit varying degrees of hypocrisy, malice and cruelty.
The only character immune from the malaise is the local schoolteacher, who narrates the story many years later, recalling the events and his simultaneous courtship of the governess of the Baron’s children, a refreshingly innocent young woman.
For Haneke this village is a microcosm. The literal aspects of the story are psychologically riveting but his plan is much more ambitious. For him the movie probes much deeper issues; it is an allegory of the rise of fascism or, as he points out, 'every type of terrorism, be it political or religious in nature". Through an entertaining, well-crafted story, Haneke confronts the key moral questions of our time.
The film is reminiscent in tone to other cautionary tales – Lord of the Flies, Thornton’s play Our Town, and cosmetically, the blonde children of The Village of the Damned. Unlike Haneke’s previous films (particularly Funny Games), White Ribbon mostly takes its theatre of cruelty behind closed doors. Rumour, innuendo, and reportage play their role in heightening the repercussions.
But what is on screen is a captivating virtuoso display of cinema as art. The lack of musical score heightens the aesthetic tension of Christian Berger’s stark stunning cinematography. Using the black and white palette to paint a dramatically austere moral canvas, he replicates the old fashioned look of a historic document, photographs and newspapers, exacerbating a distancing effect.
Haneke, no stranger to cautionary tales, is a philosophy graduate interested in the bigger questions of life. He spent years working in theatre and opera (scheduled to direct New York’s Lincoln Centre in the near future ) as well as television. White Ribbon fuses his past experience and talent to create a mesmerising work of our times.