on January 25, 2010
Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" could be considered a mystery in that things happen for no apparent reason. The Doctor (Rainer Bock) breaks his arm after falling off his horse, which tripped over a wire strung between two trees. Not long after, someone abducts the eldest son of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur); he isn't found until the next morning, at which point it's discovered that he had been bound and beaten with a cane. A barn owned by the Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) is burned to the ground. The mentally challenged son of the Midwife (Susanne Lothar) is viciously attacked and almost blinded. Why is all of this happening? Are they acts of revenge? Are they punishments for the sin of weakness? Are they the beginnings of war, intolerance, and terrorism? Your guess is as good as mine. This movie isn't about solutions.
What is it about, then? The story takes place in the days before World War I, when authority was not questioned and life was lived according to much simpler routines. The setting is a German farming community, which has maintained stability by not upsetting the "natural order"; it was expected that the Baron would own the land, the men would have control over their women and children, and the peasants would not have the same rights as their superiors. The Pastor, for example, raises his children not to love God so much as fear Him, and he continuously instills the idea that they must feel guilty for everything that they do. So as to remind them of the path of righteousness from which they have strayed, he ties a white ribbon onto their arms - a symbol of purity.
But in spite of outward appearances, purity is not something to be found behind closed doors. The Doctor, so kind and caring with his patients, grossly mistreats the Midwife and sexually abuses his daughter on a regular basis. The Baron is a demanding man who does what he wishes with no regard for anyone else, including his own workers. But was he, in fact, responsible for the death of a local woman? Or was it an accident? The woman's husband, while grieving, knows that he can't prove it either way. The woman's son, on the other hand, is convinced of the Baron's guilt. This leads to an act of retribution that generates even more hostility amongst the villagers. By then, memories of the previous incidents rise to the surface. Suspicion spreads. Distrust builds. People suffer.
All this is told from the point of view of the Schoolteacher, who narrates as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) and is seen as a young man (Christian Friedel). Even though he courts a shy young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch), he's not a participant so much as an observer, and he begins the film with a direct statement: "I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered." Indeed, the film plays not as an intimate portrait but as an examination of the facts - cold, hard, and, to the best of its ability, honest. We see into the lives of the villagers, and yet we're emotionally and physically kept at a distance, which probably accounts for the film's beautiful yet haunting black and white photography. It would also account for specific shots that, in the hands of a different director, would reveal everything in graphic detail.
Consider the scene in which the Pastor lashes his children as punishment for lying and disobedience; rather than actually show the act and its emotional aftermath, Haneke films the entire scene from outside the room with the door closed, and he ends it before the act is finished. Also consider a long shot of a coffin being wheeled out of the village on its way to the cemetery; the camera observes it from a far away location, never once cutting to the faces of the mourners flocking behind the carriage. This is not the kind of film that gives closure. It doesn't even pretend that such a thing exists.
The real genius of this film, however, is that the intricate subtexts are in service of a relatively simple story. We may not have all the answers, but at the same time, the goal is not to be confusing; the goal is to present the facts as accurately as possible, at which point we come to our own conclusions. If there are any to come to. Maybe we're being told that, when a repressive way of life is preferred for the sake of maintaining the status quo, a different and more evil form of repression will eventually surface. It could be a totalitarian government. It could be religious extremism. It could even be genocide. Who knows? Anything is possible. "The White Ribbon" is a superb film - carefully paced and cleverly structured, mysterious but not gimmicky, subtle but not lacking substance.