“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know from hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure, and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
— Narrator, The White Ribbon
With this opening confession, ripe with intrigue and apology, our storyteller establishes himself immediately as an unreliable narrator, and comments on the ultimately questionable nature of subjective recounting; especially the fallacious notion that one might recall long-passed events and achieve anything resembling the truth. He also simultaneously and ambitiously posits The White Ribbon as an explanation (albeit with the aforementioned caveat) for events that were soon to follow; with allusion to the then imminent outbreak of World War I and, in its portrayal of disturbed children with dangerous potential, it anticipates World War II. Yet the events themselves are entirely fictional.
The remarkable film that gently, methodically unfurls leaves much open to audience interpretation – as is director Michael Haneke’s signature style. Yes, it demands rapt attention; but it also bountifully rewards engagement. It is captivating, instantly iconic, tender, and cruel. The mystery conceit acts as a hook and alludes to the larger mystery of wartime conformity and dangerous obedience, which it partly seeks to address. Haneke, who is German-born although a citizen of Austria, has commented that he chose to base his film in northern Germany as he was keen to feature a form of zealous Lutheran Protestantism – particular to the region – his intention being to liken this particular religious fervency to the conformity of Nazism.
The White Ribbon started out as an unlikely project for television, with the original script running to a stonking three and a half hours. Haneke initially turned down an offer to shorten it and make it in two parts but ultimately agreed to trim it in order to secure a cinematic release. In this endeavour he was assisted by the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière (who was a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel) and it now clocks in at a much more palatable 144-minutes.
Loosely taking the shape of a thriller, albeit one which is both suspenseful and slow, the film begins with the first of the “strange events”; a length of wire malevolently strung between two trees which, with the ferocity of a lightning bolt, brings down the village doctor’s horse, injuring him badly in the process. The wire is subsequently removed by an unseen hand before further investigation is possible.
The second disturbing event seems to be an unfortunate case of employer negligence, when the wife of a tenant farmer is killed in a work accident. Its raw, yet ultimately mundane tragedy overshadows the earlier sinister mystery, which is soon forgotten. However, when the Baron’s son, Sigi, goes missing at the summer festival and is found in the saw mill hung upside down, buttocks bleeding from canestroke, the incandescent Baron reminds the villagers of the first incident; confidently connecting the two and beseeching them to weed out the culprits. As a powerful figure, with half the villagers in his employ, his statements cultivate an atmosphere of intense mistrust which hangs heavily over the village and consequently the film.
A la Village of the Damned, the children of the village are a strange breed, with a group of them, led by two of the pastor’s children, Klara and Martin, suspiciously present at the scene of the savage crimes. The film fingers the group as the culprits without ever explicitly confirming this is the case. The title makes reference to the white ribbon which Klara and Martin are forced to wear as a punishment for a minor misdeed – a reminder for them of innocence and purity. The child actors, collectively, are possibly the most remarkable thing about this film – their performances are uniformly superb. Haneke has repeatedly shown a gift with child performers, prior to this perhaps most notably in Time of the Wolf.
Told in crisp black-and-white (shot in colour first and reworked digitally to achieve perfection) and full of exquisite compositions, The White Ribbon has the aesthetic elegance of Ingmar Bergman at his finest. Haneke has described how he chose monochrome specifically to remind us of the fictional nature of the story. He is a director continually caught between encouraging us to connect his stories with the real world, and reminding us this is mere cinema and that we are being manipulated.
In terms of his tendency toward elements of realism, Haneke used photos of the era as his inspiration, particularly the work of celebrated German photographer August Sander and cast the children based on these images. Additionally, he strove to keep the lighting as natural as possible. Such contradictions combine to achieve a strange paradox and the film is both richly cinematic and earnestly austere.
As well as the omnipresent tension between realism and drama, the film frequently marries innocence with darkness. For example, the pastor is predominantly shown to be a severe man who favours disproportionate punishments, yet he defends his children from the schoolteacher’s accusations and when his son gives him a rescued bird to replace the pet that has been butchered by Klara (after she has been brutalized by her own father and thus, betrayed by the church), he is noticeably choked by the boy’s tender gesture.
Such images of childhood or sensitivity are frequently tainted by disturbing associations or undertones. When the schoolteacher stops Martin from recklessly playing on the bridge, whilst his behaviour is perfectly consistent with that of a naughty child, his justification is alarming, and he explains that, ”I gave God a chance to kill me. He didn’t do it, so he’s pleased with me”. A heartbreaking sequence where a young boy Rudi learns about mortality through quizzing his sister, leads slowly and inexorably to the revelation that his mother is dead. Even the sequences which depict the schoolteacher’s charmingly tentative courtship of Eva are marked by the oppressive hostility that bookends them.
The White Ribbon is a provocative, haunting, challenging film, bursting with ideas and inferences and buoyed hugely by flawless pacing and terrific naturalistic performances. Haneke’s unique gift as a filmmaker has never been more apparent.