The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s award-winning film uses small-town living to illustrate international relations before World War I.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 19, 2010

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Piety test: Martin (Leonard Proxauf) wears a white ribbon as a reminder of purity.

Michael Haneke is one of the finest craftsmen working in movies today. Watching 2003’s Time of the Wolf , 2005 art-house smash Caché or even Haneke’s bizarre shot-for-shot Hollywood remake of his own Funny Games , you get the feeling that you’re watching a filmmaker in complete control of the medium. He’s a chilly, cerebral and very serious man. The films delight in narrative ambiguity, unresolved mysteries and startling acts of violence.

But even after thrilling to Haneke’s command of technique, it’s hard not to leave wondering “Is that all there is?” The dude loves allegory, and after you put the pieces together and get the message, it’s tough to reconcile the complexity of his filmmaking with the simplicity of his ideas. Sure, folks have been debating that confounding closing shot of Caché for the past five years, but whatever it does or does not reveal in the end, the movie’s still a sorta ham-fisted guilt trip about France’s history in Algeria.

Haneke’s The White Ribbon , which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes—and weirdly enough, also a Golden Globe—is very similar to Caché . It’s an elliptical, sumptuously mounted mystery that remains deliberately and maddeningly unsolved. Narrative threads are beside the point, as it’s all about a psychological cancer, eating through a pastoral North German community on the eve of the first World War.

This quiet, rural town, populated mostly by tenant farmers who work for a fairly benevolent baron, seems pleasant enough at first glance. But early on, the local doctor (Rainer Bock) topples from his horse and is nearly crippled because somebody decided to interrupt his morning ride with a carefully placed tripwire. Whodunit? Well, Haneke enjoys asking questions more than he likes to answer them. The doctor’s fall is just the first of many mysterious jolts of bloodshed in the engrossing White Ribbon . As we take a closer look into the schoolrooms and bedrooms of this microcosm, we begin to uncover patterns of patriarchal viciousness and stentorian Protestantism run amok.

The harsh pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is particularly fond of Draconian punishments, going so far as to bind his young son’s hands at night to keep the kid from touching himself. When disappointed with his flock, the preacher forces them to wear white ribbons—ostensibly a symbol of innocence and purity, but more like a thudding precursor to the armbands in this generation’s immediate future.

National Socialism: The Prequel sums it up in a nutshell. It’s Haneke’s Village of the Damned , with oppressed hive-mind children lashing out in creepy feats of Aryan cruelty. In case you’re missing the point (which is almost impossible in a Michael Haneke picture), the town’s hapless schoolteacher narrates from a couple decades hence, saying: “The strange events in our town may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country.” Subtle, it is not.

But despite being so obvious, The White Ribbon is a riveting piece of artistry. Shot in glorious black and white by Haneke’s regular cinematographer Christian Berger, the movie’s images have a haunted, luminous glow. Torchlights and oil lamps sear through the endless shades of gray.

Sticking mainly to austere medium shots and forgoing a musical score, The White Ribbon is helmed with such stately elegance that the sordid town secrets and offhand abuse feel all the more shocking, considering the presentation. (A casually cruel breakup scene between the injured doctor and his homely mistress sets a new, sick comic standard for men behaving badly.)

Conventional resolutions are swept aside, thanks to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and The White Ribbon ’s blunt, climactic slow fade to black leaves the viewer with a lingering sense of horrific uncertainty. Next stop, jackboots. ■

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