Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a film which is difficult to properly write a review for. Filmed in stunning black and white by Christian Berger, Haneke intentionally makes this tale of strange events that occur in Germany on the cusp of World War I feel as if that distance of time exists between it and the viewer. The lack of color, combined with the casting of era-appropriate faces, helped in establishing this as something of another era.
The White Ribbon is an absorbing, hypnotic journey into not only this ominous village of peculiar incidents but also straight into the cruel nature of man, something Haneke has proven adept at taking on several times before. A man who has always found himself at home in a world where many questions are asked and very few are answered, this is another work from him that leaves you stirring your mind for the answers to its many mysteries. Haneke’s feature demands post-watch reflection in the best of ways, and a viewing of it prior to an attempt to fall asleep left me lying awake for hours at night, unable to get my mind off of what I had just experienced.
Taking place in the earlier 20th century right up until the eve of the first World War, Haneke transports us to another time and immerses us fully in this world all the way through the completion of his story. One of the many interesting approaches to telling the story of this village is in Haneke’s choice of a narrator. Rather than telling it straight to the audience, the events are framed through the eyes of a young school teacher in the village, played by newcomer Christian Friedel (with the narration for him as an older man provided by Ernst Jacobi). As the film opens, the teacher tells us that the story may not “reflect the truth in every detail” as “much of it I only know by hearsay”, leaving the events we see transpire up to many different interpretations as to just how true they are.
The mystery at the heart of The White Ribbon is fascinating in its own right, but what makes Haneke’s film even more impressive, and much more lasting, are the themes he explores within the confines of this pre-war setting. Haneke has always been fascinated by cruelty and the culpability of man, two themes which take heavy prominence throughout this film. We see heinous acts committed multiple times over the course of the film, yet he is clearly more interested in studying the consequences of these actions, rather than the cause of them.
One of the many questions that he opens up for the audience to reflect on is why these people behave in the manner that they do, but instead of answering it for the viewer he lets us draw our own conclusions. Perhaps it is just human nature, the white and black of all persons manifesting itself in the violence portrayed in this village; or maybe the stern, unloving authority figures within the small community, such as the pastor and the doctor, have done so much damage to those around them that they created their own monsters. What breeds the kind of malice shown between these people? Haneke never provides us with a direct answer, and this allows The White Ribbon to resonate much deeper in the mind of the viewer, ultimately creating a very unsettling and lasting experience.
This is a filmmaker who wants to explore the mind, but even more so he wants the audience to do their own work as well – something which could shut off many viewers who are looking for a more traditional experience, but for those who can subscribe to Haneke’s unique and polarizing level of filmmaking they will find it immensely stimulating. Along with the plethora of memorable images and sequences throughout The White Ribbon, there is one scene in particular that stands out in Haneke’s examination of all kinds of human cruelty. There are several moments of physical violence, but in an interesting twist it’s one of the verbal abuses that I’ve found sticking with me the most.
After an unsuccessful attempt at bringing the town doctor to a sexual climax (Haneke ingeniously refuses to give identifying names to most of the adult characters, rather having them addressed by their title), his midwife (played with immeasurable strength by the late Susanne Lothar) finds herself the victim of a verbal assault so primal and vicious it strikes through harder than anything physical could measure up to. The doctor’s unapologetic attack on her comes so suddenly and so aggressively, it throws you for a loop and stays with you long after the film has ended. Haneke makes great stride in showing here that cruelty exists in many fashions, not the least of which are the many acts of physical violence on display throughout the film.
Religion plays a heavy theme in The White Ribbon as well, as the children at the center of this story often question how these events can transpire with no punishment by god. Their questioning of cruelty, of how it can be allowed and can go unpunished, was the heart of the story for me and their eventual fate makes this an even more unsettling journey into the darkness of man. Of course Haneke’s setting of this story leading up to World War I was intentional for many reasons, not the least of which is the unspoken knowledge that the eerie, merciless children of this village are the generation that would soon become Nazis.
As we see the horrors on display here, the refusal to bring those responsible to proper justice, Haneke opens up many questions about how responsible one generation is for the crimes perpetrated by the next. If we sweep these atrocities under the rug or shun them from our mind altogether, are we responsible when those violent impulses are taken to the extreme? As always, Haneke provides the viewer with a stirring question on the nature of man, leaving it open for you to make your own decision. Here is a filmmaker who is much more about creating an intellectual forum for debate and self-reflection than he is about pandering his story to anyone, and once again this style of filmmaking has created for a truly unsettling experience that is sure to stick with me long from now.
Das Weisse Band (aka The White Ribbon), Michael Haneke (2009)
The least I can say about this film is that it is beautiful. I’m not sure I grasped what Haneke is trying to convey through this film, at least not to it’s full extent. It’s clearly a film about the origins of “evil” and how we fear what we all have inside of us. But what I found compelling in this film was the interesting take on the little village theme and its twisted dynamics.