I have a conflicted relationship with director Michael Haneke. The first film I saw was Funny Games (1997), which I found somewhat pointless. The second one was The Piano Teacher (2001), which was better, but still threw a lot of misery at you without offering some sort of satisfying conclusion. But then things changed. Caché (2005) was a revelation, a film that merely hinted at the evil and sickness so bluntly portrayed in the other movies, offering a lot more food for thought. And now there’s The White Ribbon, an equally powerful and unsettling film that knows how to make us think about the roots of real-life horror.
The story takes place in a small German village called Eichwald, between July 1913 and August 1914. The film is narrated by an old man who tells us of the strange and unsettling events that shook Eichwald. He was a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) at the time who was falling in love with Eva (Leonie Benesch), a 17-year old girl who was employed as a nanny for the baron (Ulrich Tukur). The village depended basically on the authority and leadership of three men; the baron, the doctor (Rainer Bock) and the pastor (Burghart Klaussner). The first of the intimidating events was an accident involving the doctor and his horse; someone had put up a wire between two trees. The doctor survived, but the horse had to be put down. A short while later, a farmer’s wife died at the sawmill in an accident.
These troubling incidents were followed by many others, including beatings of children and a fire. The baron later told the villagers that one of them is guilty, and a sense of dread and suspicion began to hang over Eichwald…
Setting an example to a whole village
Haneke’s expressed point of the film was to explore the origins of terrorism, “be it of political and religious nature”. The three men of authority are hugely disagreeable, each exercising power in a way that leaves deeply scarred victims, sometimes physically but mostly mentally. The baron believes that whenever his children misbehave, they force him to punish them cruelly. The doctor doesn’t beat his children, but regularly humiliates his housekeeper/mistress. Since she no longer satisfies him sexually, his teenage daughter will have to do. The pastor has novel ways of mistreating his kids. When he finds out that one of his sons is masturbating, he simply ties the boy’s hands to the bed frame at nights; any child who misbehaves has to wear a white ribbon as a reminder of innocence lost.
These are the men who set an example to the whole village – and the German society at large. That their children would grow up to create the Third Reich is not expressly stated in the film, but the consequences of the men’s philosophy are obvious. The values we instill in our children shape them and their future actions – and Haneke most likely would argue that this is a lesson that’s true not only in Germany.
Much like in Caché, he keeps many of the central events hidden from us; this lack of certainty and knowledge (complete with the expected open ending) keeps us guessing and creates a feeling of unease.
This is emphasized by the cast (who deliver an excellent ensemble performance) and Christian Berger’s cinematography. He was inspired by Sven Nykvist and the results are highly effective; this is a darkly black-and-white film, relying on few lighting sources. Nykvist worked on many Ingmar Bergman films and this one has several scenes that look Bergman-esque in all their brutal and cruel honesty, especially in confrontations between husbands and wives/lovers.
The White Ribbon 2009-Germany. 142 min. B/W. Produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Margaret Ménégoz, Andrea Occhipinti. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Cinematography: Christian Berger. Cast: Christian Friedel (The Teacher), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Ulrich Tukur (The Baron), Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaussner, Susanne Lothar.
Trivia: Original title: Das weisse Band – eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte. The film was originally planned as a TV miniseries.
Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. European Film Awards: Best Film, Director, Screenwriter. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “I wrote the script 10 years ago, and it had been percolating in my mind for the 10 years previous to that. But the answer – if you want to know the starting point of the film, the original idea I had was the story of a church choir in protestant northern Germany before the first World War. I like the idea of children who had internalized the moral imperatives that they’d been taught by their parents, and then judged their parents according to the moral imperatives that they preached. That was the starting point for the film.” (Haneke, A.V. Club)