“When you were little your mother tied a ribbon in your hair or around your arm. Its white colour was to remind you of innocence and purity.”
The White Ribbon (2009)
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Michael Kranz, Burghart Klaussner
In the opening shot of The White Ribbon a man on horseback gallops back towards his house from an open field. The horse is tripped and the man thrown to the ground violently. The cause of this is revealed to be a tightly wound metal wire strung a few inches from the ground where he was riding. Who strung the wire, and why, are central questions in this disturbing pre-WWI drama. But don’t expect things to wrap up too neatly. It’s a Michael Haneke film after all.
The film, from Austria, which won last year’s Palme D’Or takes place in a small village in North Germany just prior to the start of World War One. Our narrator recounts his early life in the village and the strange occurrences he is still wrestling with. There is our narrator, the schoolteacher intent on marriage, the doctor who is cruel to his mistress, the baron and baroness of the estate that employs most of the village and of course the Pastor with his many children, each a subject of his oppressive religious dictums.
Life carries along quite idyllically on the surface, each member of the village fitting (almost) comfortably into their roles. However the façade of this village is challenged more with each horrible event. A baby’s window is opened in the cold winter night, a woman falls to her death through faulty floorboards, a mill is set on fire, a child tortured. As the events proceed the town’s unease escalates, each villager personally needing to find the culprit to assuage their collective fears. The fact that these events seem to be without motive and that nobody knows who did them make the hidden tensions of the village reach some intense and bizarre boiling points.
Formally the film is stunning, and the black and white (shot in colour and transferred) seems like the only logical choice for a film such as this. Haneke has proven, especially with Funny Games and its remake that he can masterfully create tension with the simplest of tools. There is a horrid scene where a young girl and boy are to be caned by their tyrannical father. The camera remains outside the room as people enter and leave, and the suspense is never so great as between the door closing for the last time and the first crack of the cane. After all, this film is very much about the closed door. Not so much what it’s hiding, but that it is hiding something is what’s important.
Many people have talked about this film as dealing with the origins of Nazism. In this small village there are certainly the seeds of malevolence, which are only strengthened by the strict authority forced on the children. It would be too simple to say that the events of this town led to more horrific things later in Germany, but I think it would also be naïve to say the two aren’t related. Much of the unease garnered in this film is not the events, but their implications, socially, historically, even personally.
There is a scene I keep going back to in my mind. I’m not sure why it stands out so much, maybe just that it seems slightly out of step with the rest of the film. The pastor (Burghart Klaussner), after withholding all affection from his children and instead giving it to his pet canary, finds the bird mutilated on his desk. Soon his son comes to see him and gives him his own bird he had been nursing back to health. The look on the patriarch’s face having received this unexpected and un-earned gift filled me with a hopeful perplexity, unlike, but perhaps not unrelated to the perplexing tragedies populating the film.
Like his brilliant 2005 thriller Cache Michael Haneke is more interested by the questions the mystery presents and less about reaching any sort of cathartic answers. In his world the mysteries are not solved and we return to the status quo. It is the very idea of the status quo I believe he wants us to question.
Great moment: Actually a great moment was at the Golden Globes when Michael Haneke accepted the award for Best Foreign Film and the camera cut to Arnold Shwarzenegger. Because…Austria.
I couldn’t find a clip so you get this instead…