There are a few artists whose work has such beauty and breadth that you can only bask in sheer wonder and envy at their skill. Michael Haneke is one such artist. Most likely you have heard about or seen at least one of his films, even if you do not recognize his name. Some of his most famous works include: the original Funny Games (1997), Code Unknown (2000), The Piano Teacher (2001) and Amour (2012). Yet The White Ribbon, released in 2009, remains one of his most striking achievements.
What makes Michael Haneke such an incredible artist is not only his gift for direction but also his writing (he wrote most of the scripts for his movies). This is what makes Haneke one of the few “true” auteurs in filmmaking today. One of the main flaws with considering the director an auteur is the fact that movie making is a collaborative process. However, the fact that Michael Haneke takes on two of the most important jobs in the creation of his films means that he truly is the author (auteur) of his films. He is in control from the “drawing table” to the final shot. Mr. Haneke’s consummate skill has not gone unnoticed. He has been nominated for two academy awards (one for best Director and one for best screenplay) and has been nominated six times for a variety of awards at the Cannes Film Festival. He has twice won the Palme d’Or.
The White Ribbon is a haunting portrait of a rural German village that takes place the year before the start of World War I. The film is narrated by the village’s school teacher (Christian Friedel) as he recounts a strange chain of events which occurred that fateful year. At first these events do not appear to be related. A wire is strung between two trees, tripping a horse and causing its rider, the village doctor (Rainer Bock), to severely break his arm. The next day a woman falls to her death while working at the Baron’s sawmill. Within the next few weeks a barn is burned to the ground, the Baron’s son goes missing and is found badly beaten and finally a mentally handicapped child is tortured so badly that he nearly loses his sight. As a result of these mysterious and violent events, the town is sent into a frenzy of gossip and suspicion. With no evidence, a family is accused of assaulting the Baron’s son in retribution for their mother/wife’s death in his mill. As a result of the shame from the accusations and without work from the Baron, the father hangs himself.
The film does a great job showing how, under the mask of tranquility and strict religious and hierarchical rules, secrets and cruelty can run rampant. In the name of religion, the town parents smother their children with shame and fear. They beat and humiliate them in the name of God. The movie’s title refers to the white ribbon that is tied around the children’s arms to remind them of chastity. The parents’ hypocrisy is made clear as they break the very rules they so harshly lay down for their children. They lie, have affairs and in the case of the local Doctor, even sexually abuse his own daughter. We wonder what other evil deeds are going on behind the closed doors of these pious hard working folk. There is also a strong theme of patriarchy. The fathers in the movie are severe and omnipotent, the mothers are submissive and subservient. While watching the movie I could not help but think of Hitler and how he was seen as a father to the German people: a strong, all knowing, and cruel father, not unlike the God of the Old Testament.
The White Ribbon’s themes are not blatant and much is left to individual interpretation. Nothing is ever fully explained, including who perpetrated the seemingly random acts of violence that plagued the town. The other unanswered question in why? One can see the film as a work of social or religious criticism and as a naturalistic exploration of the mentality that made the holocaust possible. The film has a very strong focus on religion and not much of it positive. It depicts religion much like author and critic Christopher Hitchen’s described it; as a tool to brainwash and torture a society’s youth. Although never confirmed, the story strongly hints that the town’s children may be responsible for the horrible acts of violence. The children appear to be obedient and disciplined but you get the feeling that they are acting. There is no evidence of this, but it comes across in the way the camera lingers on a face or their pat answers when being questioned by an adult or brief instances of possible conspiracy when we glimpse them whispering or in intimate huddles that break up as soon as an adult arrives. These moments make you feel like there are simmering passions beneath the surface. The message I got was that more often than not it is the abused that become the abusers. In this way, Michael Haneke is offering an insight into how an abused youth can grow up and take out his/her hate and pain on the world. The human race seems to be stuck in an endless cycle of pain, hate, cruelty and violence that we cannot escape. As Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the son of the town preacher, says as he stands atop the teetering edge of an old wood bridge, “I gave God a chance to kill me. He didn’t do it, so he’s pleased with me.” If there is a God in The White Ribbon it is absent or is as flawed as we humans.
The film’s cinematography by Christian Berger is a key tool in conveying the film’s poignant themes in a subtle yet ultimately highly successful fashion. The first thing you will notice when watching this film is that it “feels” old, which is subtly different from “looking” old. This could be due in part to the fact that the film is shot in black and white, a rarity these days, but there is something else that makes it feel like a classic film made in the 1950’s. Perhaps it is the fact that the film’s cinematography is deceptively simple. Often a shot will linger slightly longer than you think it should before cutting away. In this modern day and age where scenes are cut at break neck speed and rely so heavily on editing and conventions like shot reverse shot, this film is a breath of fresh air and harkens back to the directness and pacing of old foreign films. A lot of the film’s suspense is thanks to its high contrast scenes. Daylight shots appear over exposed and glaring while the dark interiors feel claustrophobic. This barely noticeable effect lends itself to the film’s overall feeling of unease and discomfort.
It is hard to pin down what exact genre The White Ribbon fits into: drama, suspense, mystery, horror, etc. It has elements from them all. It can easily be described as a horror film, but an intelligent one. However, rather than having supernatural elements, it deals with something far more terrifying, human nature. The film keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. You are constantly wondering what is going to happen next. The film is an oddly entertaining delight despite its disturbing content and subject matter. The use of a narrator who is also a character in the film really takes you in and leads your through the course of the film. Far from being an intrusion, you grow to expect and welcome his commentary. The director allows you into people’s lives for brief moments but never long enough to fully grasp the entire situation. This keeps you waiting for the next glimpse, hoping that it will give you the insight you seek. We want to understand why, which is a wish that the movie ultimately denies us.
Every aspect of this film is impeccably executed from the acting, to the cinematography, script and cutting social criticism. Michael Haneke has created some truly staggering works of art over the years but The White Ribbon is something special. The unique mood it evokes and the chilling nature of the film cannot be found anywhere else in modern cinema. For these reasons it is a film that stays with you long after it’s finished. He is a director who fully deserves the title of auteur.