In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon a man is injured when his horse trips over a wire mysteriously strung across his gate. A small child is abducted and brutally beaten. Another is nearly blinded. An elderly woman is killed in a work-related accident. Children are tied to their beds, severely disciplined, and molested by their parents. Everyone lives in fear and suspicion. At the film’s beginning an elderly narrator tells us that he is recounting these terrible events that happened in his small farming community to “clarify things that happened in our country" afterward.
Given such a horrifying series of crimes that quietly unsettles this rural, Northern German hamlet, populated by brutal patriarchs and toe-headed impressionable youths seemingly teleported from central casting for Village of the Damned (1961), on the eve of World War I no less, it’s not too hard to see what Haneke is pointing to with that elliptical phrase, "things that happened." Or is it?
The question of whether or not The White Ribbon is a cautionary fable about the social conditions that led to the rise of National Socialism is something of a red herring for a film that, at its strongest moments, presents a precise and chilling exploration of our capacity for random cruelty, as well as of our equal capacity for great cowardice when required to do the right thing in the face of such cruelty. It is not spoiling anything to reveal that the crimes go unsolved and that everyone attempts to get on with the simple life as if nothing ever happened. But Haneke, too, is unwilling to answer any of the suspicions his film raises, even as, from the outset, he baits us with the unspoken fascist future, waiting in the wings.
It is an unfortunate move, and one that reveals the film’s intellectual limits, in spite of its formal assuredness — due in no small part to Christian Berger’s striking cinematography (achieved by converting color footage to monochrome) — and some stand-out performances from the child non-actors. Haneke has never been as masterful a director or as simple a student of history as he is In The White Ribbon.
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