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The White Ribbon

Public People, Private Lives: The White Ribbon

Winner of the Golden Palm at Cannes last year and a leading contender for this year’s Best Foreign Language Academy Award (historically one of Oscar’s least predictable categories), The White Ribbon is engrossing in a way that Austrian director Michael Haneke has never before achieved. It may even be the first time he has tried: This is, after all, the filmmaker whose most notorious work, the two versions of Funny Games, exist to drive audiences out of the theater.

You may have felt the same way about The Piano Teacher, with its scenes of Isabelle Huppert mutilating herself with a razor blade. Even a relatively sedate Haneke movie like Cache could never be accused of providing light entertainment to sedate bourgeois audiences.

But The White Ribbon, which on its surface seems to proceed as a mystery, is captivating in the way that audiences find pleasurable. Set in a German village in an uncertain era—we assume the early 20th century, but don’t learn the actual date until near the end—it has a large cast of characters and an event-filled plot. It is not a difficult film, at least to watch. But it is an elusive one, whose meaning is meant to be ambiguous. Imagine late period Ingmar Bergman adapting Twin Peaks but dispensing with Agent Cooper as a central figure to shape the mystery.

The setting is Northern Germany, where a harsh Protestantism holds sway over the local character. The people are mostly subsistence farmers who depend on employment on the Baron’s land to even out their incomes, and while life is hard it is stable. It’s not a large place; everyone knows everyone else, and the population is small enough that when you refer to the Schoolteacher or the Pastor or the Doctor, everyone knows who you mean.

On his way home from visiting a patient, the doctor has an accident. His horse trips and in the fall the doctor breaks his arm and collarbone. His neighbors are disturbed to discover that the horse was brought down by a wire: Someone planned this accident, which could well have resulted in the doctor’s death.

Over the course of one year, other incidents occur. Some are fatal, and could be accidents. But others involve willful beatings, even torture (never seen onscreen). Are they related? In a town so small, it seems impossible that they could not be. But who is behind them, and why?

You suspect the answer to at least the first of those questions almost immediately, though better you see it in the film than hear it from me. We spend our visit to this town in the company of many of its residents, plumbing through their dirty secrets and their misshapen prides (mostly regarding their children). I will say this much, for the benefit of those viewers who hate loose ends: By the end of this movie you have a general idea of what happened, but very few definite answers.

It’s not as if Haneke doesn’t warn you. The film is narrated by one of its characters from a vantage point in the future, perhaps 40 or 50 years. He begins by saying, “I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true.” Some of it is his memory, which he admits has grown dim over the years, and some of it is only hearsay. (And we have to consider that he has left out damaging details about himself.) He offers this story, he says, because it “may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country.”

But to interpret The White Ribbon as an allegory of the spiritual birth of Nazism is, I think, too reductive. Think of it as an epic fable about the consequences of repression that can be applied to any way of life that loses sight of the meanings behind its rules and rituals.

Working in pristinely lit black and white images with no musical score, Haneke as always is restrained—he wants the audience to work its way into a film, and isn’t above laying traps to keep us on our toes. (He often cuts unexpectedly from one character to another in a way that blends them for a few beats before we get our bearing.) It’s something you may feel he pursues to a fault. He leaves you a lot of room to interpret events and meanings, more than you may be comfortable with and perhaps more than is useful: If an artist completely obliterates his perspective, what is he offering us?

Obscure as it may be, it is, I think, one of the best films of the year.

Watch the trailer for The White Ribbon

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