The White Ribbon


Reviews by Willard Manus

Michael Haneke is one of the most serious and compelling filmmakers at work today. Writer/director of such previous works as Funny Games (made first in Germany in 1997, then redone in Hollywood ten years later); Hidden and The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert); he can be counted on to delve into the human condition with a cool, unflinching eye, uncovering the dark, sinister forces at work within mankind.

Now Haneke has returned with his latest film, THE WHITE RIBBON, which Sony is releasing on the arthouse circuit. The film, Germany's official entry in the 2009 Academy Award competition, is two hours and twenty minutes long; its length and slow pacing might put some people off, but for those who stay with it the rewards are many.

Set on a farm in northern Germany in the years immediately preceding WW I, THE WHITE RIBBON was shot by Haneke in black and white (his skillful cinematographer is Christian Berger). The absence of color suits the story, which is soaked through and through with menace, brutality and evil. Haneke's script (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere) focuses on the children and teenagers of a choir led by the village schoolteacher (Christian Freidel; just about the only sympathetic character on screen). The film's other important characters include the Baron, the steward, the pastor, the doctor, the midwife and various tenant farmers.

The farm is a microcosm of the larger German society. Just as the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) has absolute power over his workers, the parents have absolute power over their children. Step out of line in the fields and the Baron will come down ruthlessly on you, taking away not just your job but the bread in your mouth. Step out of line in the house and your father will beat you to a pulp.

To remind the youngsters of how they should "properly" behave, white ribbons are tied round their arms, the white signifying purity and decency--qualities that are completely missing in the grownups (something these "good" Christians would vehemently deny, of course).

The film opens with a homicidal act. Someone strings a wire between two trees, causing the village doctor's horse to take a bad spill. The doctor (Rainer Bock) breaks his collarbone; the horse must be destroyed.

Other strange events continue to occur in the village: someone beats up the Baron's son; a barn is burned down; a retarded child is cruelly tortured. In each case it's clear that punishment is being meted out--but by whom? And why? Neither the police nor the villagers can solve the mystery.

The tight, rigidly moralistic community begins to dissolve, turn in on itself, become corrupt and violent. It's easy to infer from this that Haneke is making a comment about Germany itself, how it went from a kingdown to fascism. WWI figured in this; THE WHITE RIBBON ENDS with the farmers and their sons getting ready to go off and do battle in Europe.

But Haneke doesn't want us to see the film only as a historical metaphor. THE WHITE RIBBON is also about the nature of evil. The evil that lives not just in the film's adults but in its children as well. In Haneke's eyes, as he confided in an interview, "Children are no more or less innocent than the rest of us. Since Freud, nobody believes in the innocence of a child. Same goes for men and women. I think everyone can be cruel with each other, not just men or women, not limited to gender."

THE WHITE RIBBON is a complex film, one which contains a slew of plots and subplots, but it unspools in a cool, meticulous way. Haneke also leaves many questions unanswered; he doesn't believe in explaining things, just showing them. He isn't a reassuring artist; on the contrary, he clearly wants to unsettle us, make us think, even if it hurts.