Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel
Michael Haneke doesn't like to make things easy. His are films that simmer with tension underneath, that raise more questions than they answer. Certainly that is the case with The White Ribbon, his exploration of the societal dynamics that laid the foundation for the rise of National Socialism. Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has a haunting, deeply unsettling quality that makes it particularly memorable.
The story is related to us many years after the fact by a now elderly tailor who recalls the time when he was a village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in the years leading up to World War I. The village is governed by the baron (Ulrich Tukur), on whom many families depend for their livelihood, and to a lesser extent by the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), who rules through repression, particularly in his own household. The resentment of the younger people in the village is palpable and there is a sense that things are about to come to a head, that the old order is about to be cast aside and replaced by something harder and even more uncompromising.
Strange things begin to happen, starting with a wire that is strung up between two trees to trip the village's doctor (Rainer Bock). He's badly injured but curiosity about the event dissolves following the death of a peasant woman in an accident, which inspires an act of vengeance by her son, and by the beating of the baron's son. Later another child is badly beaten and the pastor's beloved bird is killed with a pair of scissors. The teacher becomes suspicious of the children, whose behavior (and seeming pack mentality) makes him suspicious. However, by the time he starts asking questions, events on the world stage force a change in focus for everyone.
Haneke builds a very sinister tone through The White Ribbon and doesn't offer up any easy solutions either in terms of the culprits behind the strange happenings or their motivations. The film doesn't point to one single thing as the root of Nazism but to several societal ills that paved the way, including the vestiges of the feudal system, which breeds bad feelings, and the repressive attitudes towards sex. When the pastor suspects that his son might be masturbating, he instills him with a sense of shame and then ties the boy's hands at night; the doctor sexually humiliates his mistress and abuses his daughter. It's all part of the strategy of the older generation of men to ridigly control every facet of life in the village. The feelings of unrest seem to grow with every scene but instead of rebelling against oppression, the younger generation seems to be learning from it and turning it to their own ends. Culturally there is a generation between the children in the film and their parents, but that generation (to which the school teacher, for example, belongs) will be significantly depleted by the war and the children who will inherit the power of society will come of age in a rapidly changing world, one where political, social and economic turmoil will make totalitarianism inevitable in several corners. The ending of the film lacks a concrete resolution but that's because on the grander scale things are only just beginning.
The screenplay, written by Haneke, tells a story that is deliberately obscure. The school teacher doesn’t have all the answers and the story has been pieced together from what he himself witnessed and what he heard from others and all of it, likely, has been coloured by the passage of time. It presents us with a mystery but steadfastly refuses to solve it, which some viewers may understandably find frustrating. If you can get past that, however, you're left with a film that is endlessly fascinating and well-wrought, a film that absolutely deserves to be considered alongside Haneke's masterpiece Cache.