The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009)

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band – eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) first published by Film4

Summary: In this mystery, a German Protestant community pays the price for its own sins. Michael Haneke writes and directs this European co-production.

Review: As the film’s original subtitle (left untranslated for English-speaking viewers) declares, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, or ‘a German children’s story’ – and in keeping with that Grimmest of genres, the film sets stock characters and acts of macabre, primal violence in a vague and obscure past, with the specificity of names, places and times only gradually emerging. Of course there are children too, but anyone familiar with previous Haneke films like Benny’s Video (1992), Funny Games (1997/2007) and even Hidden (2005) will know that the Austrian writer/director is often interested in children’s stories of a markedly different kind, wherein young people take a terrible revenge upon the adult world that has engendered them, revisiting it with its own repressed sins.  

Over the course of a year, a god-fearing German village is plagued by a series of strange events. The Doctor (Rainer Bock) is felled from his horse by a tripwire placed near his home. A woman is killed when the rotting floor of the local sawmill collapses. The Baron’s entire summer crop of cauliflower is wilfully destroyed by a scythe. The young son of the aristocratic Baron (Ulrich Tukur) is strung up and whipped in the sawmill. In the room where the newborn baby of the Steward (Josef Bierbichler) sleeps, someone opens the window to let in the winter cold. The manor barn is burnt down in the middle of the night. A Farmer (Branko Samarovski) hangs himself. The beloved pet of the stern Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is killed.  

At first the young Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) is too distracted by his romantic pursuit of the Baron’s governess (Leonie Bensch) to pay much attention to these mysteries. When, however, the handicapped son of the Midwife (Susanne Lothar) is found tied to a tree and viciously beaten, with a handwritten message on his person about divine punishment, the teacher begins to think that he can see a horrifying connection between at least some of these events – and looking back years later as the film’s Narrator (Ernst Jacobi), he speculates that “they could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”      

Much like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), The White Ribbon is a tale of small-town suspicion, envy, malice, hypocrisy and repression, all perpetuated by a patriarchy that rules with God and the rod. Set on the eve of the First World War, it is also, as the narrator suggests, an attempt to throw light upon how the village’s younger members could grow up to become willing citizens, even soldiers, of the Third Reich. Their teacher may be kindly, sympathetic and well-meaning, but these youngsters are receiving rather different lessons from the other adults all around them, and assimilating what they see and hear as children always do. 

Despite the assertions of many critics, it is not really true that the question of whodunnit remains unanswered in The White Ribbon. On the contrary, the identity of those committing the atrocities is hidden in plain sight, and by the end only a few details have been left to the imagination. Attentive viewers will grasp from very near the beginning what is going on in this Village of the Damned – and several of the characters also seem to have at least a partial idea of the solution, even if their response is to lash out inappropriately, to keep their silence, or to retreat into denial, refusing to confront anything that might also reflect their own culpability.

So here, as in Hidden, Haneke situates criminal behaviour in a broader social and moral context, where blame, guilt and responsibility do not begin and end with the perpetrators themselves, but are spread throughout the community like an infectious malaise that is passed down from parent to child. Where Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) exposed a small town’s malevolence and corruption to our full scrutiny, Haneke puts such perversions back behind closed doors (or out of shot) – but the effect in either case is much the same, in films that use a parochial setting to dramatise the ills of a nation, or even of human nature in general.

In a sense though, this is where the film’s problems lie. There is little here that has not been done before, whether in other works by Haneke, or in any of the countless period films to probe the stifling hypocrisies of the past. When the material is as familiar as this, the film’s monochrome austerity, fastidiously framed wideshots and lengthy duration perhaps capture a little too well the dull pace of German rural life in the early twentieth century. Many may admire the surgical rigor of Haneke’s aesthetic – and indeed The White Ribbon was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes – but few, one suspects, will be exactly riveted by the film’s chilly languor.     

Verdict: As an anatomisation of the insular envy, malice and brutality that would lead to the rise of Nazism, The White Ribbon is clinically precise – but also just a little dull.

© Anton Bitel