What is evil, where does it come from, how does it take control? These are the questions enigmatically raised in The White Ribbon, a dark and mesmerising film set in the bounds of a small German town pre-WWI. Along with the themes of paranoia and distrust that pervade all of Haneke’s films, there is a sense of palpable maliciousness bubbling away under the surface of every scene, and a real sense of “fear thy neighbour” in every exchange.
That’s all well and good, but what does it tell you of the film?
There’s not an overabundance of plot weighing down the film – it’s more a selection of slice of life through a trying time in this little village, where some bad things started happening.
Firstly, there’s the injuring of the local doctor. He’s riding back into town when his horse trips against a wire someone’s strung across the road, injuring the doctor, and falling lame to the point of its own execution. Who set the wire there? Why were they after the doctor?
We never find out, but we see through later dealings with him that he may well have deserved it. Like the best of small-towns-in-fiction, few people are what they seem in The White Ribbon. But unlike Twin Peaks-esque quirkiness, the hidden faces of the villagers are vicious and cruel. And we never know which ones
Elsewhere in the village, two children of the local pastor stay out past curfew. The rest of their brothers and sisters are forced to bed without food, and the two rule-breakers are made to wear the titular ribbons to remind them of their purity, and what they’re risking by violating their father’s morals. When the (teenage) son confesses to having masturbated, he is tied to his bed at night to prevent it.
Strange things happen. A woman dies in a sawmill accident, and her grieving husband later hangs himself. A pet bird is impaled with a set of scissors. A barn is set on fire. The disabled son of the doctor’s assistant is cruelly attacked and almost left blinded. The doctor’s assistant borrows a bicycle to report evidence of the crime in the local town – she is never seen again.
Hints and motives are suggested throughout. The possibility for each event to be a completely separate incident is as equally possible as it is part of a calculated sequence. Are the pastor’s children innocent victims? Are they cold perpetrators? There’s definitely something wrong with them, but we never find out.
In the most accomplished and deliberate way, Haneke uses the model of a village as an allegory for society at large – without ever beating his metaphors over our head. The film is a discussion – without necessarily offering any conclusions – on the nature of power, terrorism and control; how easily these things can be used and how insidiously – and what consequences they have from perpetrators unknown. That the characters we see grew up to become the first Nazis is not lost in the narrative, though it’s not dwelt on.
I suspect Haneke knows what’s happened – there’s no sense that he’s writing by the seat of his pants, just that we’re better off as an audience being uncertain as to what’s really going on – it gives us the option of hope.
Hope is also present in the film through the character of the teacher – disempowered by the men above him in the little societal system of the village, but still a guiding voice for the children. Of course, he’s also the narrator, so we might be seeing his character through rose-coloured glasses.
Has this review sounded very vague? I hope so – it was my intent. On the traditional “is it good?” side of reviewing, then yes – yes the film is very good, it’s very dark and at times can be disturbing, but its quality is not in question at all. As its an ensemble film, it’s difficult to single out any specific performers as standouts, although Susanne Lothar brings a haunting vulnerability to the doctor’s assistant – a character you feel scared for without necessarily knowing why.
It is a beautiful film to behold – the black-and-white footage doesn’t detract from the cinematography whatsoever, and there are some stunning moments of chiaroscuro lighting (for which I’m an absolute sucker). But appraising the technical aspects of the film seems somewhat pointless given its end result. If we want to get pretentious about it, this is cinema, not a movie. It’s crafted by an auteur, not directed by a director. I italicise to mock the lofty notions behind such phrases, but at the same time it’s true – this is not so much a movie concerned with box-office gold, but a very fine piece of art.
It is however, a mystery – and a puzzling one at that. There are no easy resolutions, there are no marketable twists, and there are no clear answers. There are questions. There is evil. These last two facts are pretty much the only certainty throughout the film.
It’s one of Hanke’s strongest films, despite the unclear message or plot and motivations of the characters. It’s an unsettling film, but it’s gripping. It’s highly recommended, and something that I’m sure history will remember as essential.