The White Ribbon opens Friday in select theaters
Like Lars von Trier's Dogville, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is almost an obscene parody of Our Town, Thornton Wilder's devastating masterpiece that eschews the Grand Guignol for the quieter terrors of being alive.
Like Wilder's play, The White Ribbon is set on the cusp of the modern era, just after the turn of the century. It also features two families at the center of the village's life. However, The White Ribbon is set in a German hamlet in 1913, and the two families in the film are those of the doctor and the pastor. (In Our Town, the families were a doctor's and a journalist's.)
But in this village of Eichwald, however, the children are not treated kindly, and they do not treat others kindly. It is a malevolent place, full of class and gender inequalities. There is evil in the air, we're told by a narrator (a device used both in Dogville and Our Town), a young "School Teacher," who emerges as one of the only decent adult men in the story. Mysterious acts of violence are occurring, and no one seems to know who's responsible and what the motives are. The criminal incidents vary in severity—one of the more serious happens at the film's outset, when we see the Doctor and his horse tripped by a wire someone had stretched across their path. The Doctor breaks his collarbone and is removed to a hospital in another town and thus out of the first third of the story. (The horse isn't so lucky.) During the ensuing investigation, a piece of evidence disappears. Soon after that, there is a violent death that results from unsafe working conditions at the local sawmill.
There are other similarly disturbing episodes in this village, but Haneke's purpose isn't to set up an elaborate M. Night Shyamalan-style contrivance that will be solved at the film's end. Those who are familiar with his work (Caché, Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) are conditioned to expect modern bourgeois settings and violence without catharsis or redemption. Fortunately for those terrified by the prospect of more time in the company of Haneke's sharp knives and spurting arteries, the sensory shocks in this period piece are kept to minimum and, in a first for his mature work, the modest bloodshed is contained within the aesthetic enclosure of Christian Berger's black-and-white photography.
The White Ribbon depicts an unexceptional village, but it's one with many hidden worlds obscured beneath the surface of what appears to be a dull, orderly society with an organization that appears not to have changed since the Middle Ages. There is a baron and his family, and there are the farmers who work on his land and pay fealty to him at every fall's harvest festival, which in turn is blessed by the local pastor. There's a midwife for the expectant mothers, a schoolteacher for the children, a doctor for the sick and the pastor for every baptism, funeral and transgression. But as with von Trier and Dogville, Haneke burrows into this social organism at the cellular level. Each family, it turns out, is a separate constellation of horror: We see how the Pastor viciously whips his children for their adolescent misdemeanors (and employs the ribbons of the film's title), and we discover how the Doctor's home is a den of sexual and emotional predation. (Indeed, there is more than one person with a motive for sabotaging his morning gallop.)
Although there are, ultimately, few explanations for the mysterious incidents that plague Eichwald, we're supplied with many motives. We see the festering resentments of the farmers who are wondering if it's really God's will for them to be poor and the baron to be rich. We see women chafing at their circumscribed roles—the Midwife, for example, seems perfectly adept at attending to people's needs during the Doctor's long absence. But most of all, we see the children, the poor children, as their spirit, their inquisitiveness, their friendliness and their libidos are ruthlessly discouraged and punished. Indeed, the children are central in this story (which coincidentally echoes Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, opening this week at Durham Performing Arts Center, in its portrait of passionate, repressed Germanic youth at the turn of the 20th century). Haneke, as usual, is a generous and sensitive director of his young actors, and there are a half-dozen youngsters who give fine, memorable performances—especially Roxane Duran and Maria-Victoria Dragus as the eldest (and damned) daughters of the Doctor and the Pastor, respectively.
But what does this all mean? This is where The White Ribbon is trickiest, and to me, unsatisfying. After seeing it, I consulted Haneke's own remarks about the film and found them deeply deflating—so much so that I wondered briefly if the film was worth continuing to think about. (Although I won't offer plot spoilers here, if you'd like to enjoy the numinous potential of The White Ribbon without being disabused in advance by Haneke's comments, this is a good place to stop reading.)
The film—and the seemingly unchangeable life of the town—ends when real-life historical events intrude, and we understand that World War I will bring an end to this ossified culture. Fair enough, but Haneke pushes it too far when he tells us in the press notes that he's given us a portrait of the future generation of Nazis:
"The grownups of 1933 and 1945 were children in the years prior to World War I. What made them susceptible to following political Pied Pipers? [...] What in their upbringing makes them hate?"
It's a strange feeling to call bullshit on a filmmaker one admires, on a film that has much to recommend it (and you should see it). But to construct a stifling, perverse and fictitious German village on the eve of World War I and claim that the events of the following 30 years were thus inevitable is a classic example of narrative fallacy. There is a substantial degree of randomness to history; how differently (if not necessarily for the better) things might have turned out if the 10 million young men who perished in the mud of the Great War had included among their number a certain young Austrian—soon to become infamous and reviled—who somehow survived four years on the front.
In fact, in the literature of the late 19th century one can find plenty of examples of depravity in cultures that nonetheless failed to produce National Socialism—in Chekhov, for example, or Flaubert, or Dickens. Here in America, there's a book called Wisconsin Death Trip that consists of newspaper clippings and photographs from the 1890s frontier of the title; just a cursory browse will reveal horrors very similar to what we see in The White Ribbon: mysterious acts of arson, shocking domestic crimes and the like.
Still, despite Haneke's disappointingly reductive, on-the-nose interpretation of his own work, The White Ribbon (which is up for a best foreign language film Oscar) qualifies as a must-see. The prewar German milieu seen here is extraordinarily well constructed, and the ensemble acting is exquisite. The tactile mise-en-scène at times recalls the realistic fiction of Maupassant and early Hemingway—a scene of fishing for trout, for example, or a young man's courting of a sweet young woman encountered as she rides down a dusty road on a rickety bicycle.
And, finally, the film's themes are worth arguing over. Perhaps it's best to remember the artist is not the most reliable proponent of his own work, and fine movies can survive reductive explanations. Like Citizen Kane, for example. Who really thinks it's a movie about a sled?