reviewed by Marc Glassman
The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke, director & script.
Featuring: Christian Friedel (Schoolteacher), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Ulrich Tukur (Baron), Ursina Lardi (Baroness), Burghart Klaussner (Pastor), Rainer Bock (Doctor), Susanne Lothar (Midwife), Marie-Victoria Dragus (Klara), Ernst Jacobi (Narrator)
Set in a village in northern Germany in 1913, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a stern, moralistic fable shot, appropriately, in black and white. Spare, unadorned scenes unfold, retelling a mysterious set of events that took place over the year preceding World War One in Eichwald, a classic early 20th century community dominated by an aloof Baron, his insular wife, the dour, severe pastor and a cold but effective doctor. Though technology—phones and lights and other 20th century conveniences—are being used in the village, one gets the sense that Eichwald’s hierarchy, both religious and secular, hasn’t changed for centuries.
That makes it even more shocking when a series of dreadful mishaps begin to occur. First, the doctor is thrown off his horse by a wire strung between trees, causing him to break his collarbone. Then, a village woman falls to her death because the wooden boards in a barn mysteriously give way. Soon afterward, the Baron’s son is beaten up and left hanging upside down during an annual village celebration.
Who is causing these disturbances? The Baron offers a hefty reward but no one comes forward to confess to the crimes or to point the finger at another villager. As tension rises, the unfeeling, relentless nature of major members of the community is revealed. When the doctor comes back to town, he resumes his secret affair with the nurse who cared for his children while he was recovering from the fall—but their relationship is shown to be psychologically violent and malicious. The Baroness is shown as a manipulative individual, uncaring of the feelings of her servants, but spineless when dealing with her brutal husband. The pastor beats his children whenever they show any free spirit—presumably, because they’re defying the Lord’s will.
The only good person with any authority in this village is the schoolteacher, who narrates the film from the perspective of an older man talking about his past. The schoolteacher’s courtship of Eva, the naïve governess of the Baron’s children is the sole charming element in The White Ribbon. He also proves himself to be a detective and although his theory of how the violent acts in the village took place is never proven, one can accept that he’s most likely correct in his assumptions.
Michael Haneke’s films are never joy rides. This film has the feeling of mid-period Bergman, with a chilly Northern European Protestant sensibility. It feels as if God has abandoned these people, leaving only anger and a lust for revenge in their hearts. In its quiet way, The White Ribbon proposes why the Nazis would rise to power twenty years after the events shown in the film took place.
Like most of Haneke’s cinema, this is a brilliantly realized work. The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, three European film awards and the Toronto Film Critics Association’s best foreign film prize. I voted for the film; it is one of the most impressive accomplishments in cinema in recent times. Not fun—but immensely worthwhile.