Film review: The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke has brought us the acclaimed Caché and 2 versions of the disturbing Funny Games over the last 15 years, and the Austrian auteur continued his run of highly praised movies with the 2009 Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon. Although Haneke’s uncompromising directorial style has led to some accusations of pretension, the slow-burning, black-and-white drama of his latest picture suits him down to the ground.

Following the bizarre events in a north Germany town in 1913, The White Ribbon reveals itself as a critique of the social norms pre-first World War which, it is very strongly hinted, will eventually lead to the second. The characters Haneke focuses on are all notionally figures of societal pride and moral responsibility – the doctor, the schoolteacher, the pastor – but as we pass through the film’s quaint opening half hour it becomes abundantly clear that more than just neighbourly goodness lurks within these houses’ walls.

What Haneke does so well in the first act is to paint an uncomfortable backdrop. We are transported into this turn-of-the-century Teutonic scene via a series of atmospheric panning shots, unafraid to linger for half a minute or more on the idyllic countryside surrounding this insular village. However, the movie’s opening third also sees the town doctor fall from his horse as a wire is stretched between two trees and this, we’re told by the schoolteacher’s voiceover, is what starts the bizarre events.

After the first half an hour, in which the locals harvest crops for the baron who owns most of the town’s houses and employs its populace, there is an act of rebellion from a farmer’s son which prompts the baron’s anger. His family are sacked and now penniless, the young farmer banished. The doctor’s return from hospital does little to settle the mood of uncertainty as his ruptured, incestuous home life is revealed. The pastor’s children begin to act up in worrying fashion, and cruel events grip the town’s mind, with children being abducted, beaten and found utterly traumatised.

Funny Games has already shown Haneke’s adeptness at dealing with the causes and effects of horrible violence, but where The White Ribbon sets itself apart is that it chooses not to show the events themselves. Just as the townspeople keep their secrets locked up behind closed doors, so too Haneke elects to keep these horrendous acts off-camera. It’s mightily unsettling to watch such a quaint-looking down degrade into acts of sadism, torture and suppression.

The grainy black-and-white film that the German director has used is all stark whites and mysterious shadows; the darkness in which the villagers search for missing children is absolute, Haneke building tension in a near-Hitchcockian way, and the jump cuts from the depths of night to noontime daylight strain the eyes. Haneke forces every shot to be scrutinized as we search for clues of the true illicit identities of a populace who aren’t what they seem.

But for all its true brilliance, The White Ribbon does have moments of excessive idiosyncrasy from its director, and does occasionally slow to a near-comatose pace. The long panning shots are lovely to enjoy, but they do occasionally loiter on the same subject a touch too long: a street is nowhere near as interesting or important as the director would have us believe, for example. His characters, especially the wonderfully creepy kids, are fairly well thought-out, but suffer from sheer numbers – some don’t receive the benefits of long screentime as we follow numerous individual stories. In addition, all the adult characters remained unnamed, leaving a bit of a disconnect between audience and character sympathy. There are also points where we wonder what The White Ribbon really wants to be – it’s part controversial love story, part fantasy-horror and part societal critique and never really settles into any of them, bouncing between all three.

To call The White Ribbon an enjoyable watch would be an overstatement, difficult German cinema such as this could seldom be thus described, but it is certainly an interesting proposition. Haneke’s latest may never settle on a genre, but his ability to juggle three different ones with evident relish is certainly worthy of high praise. His film shows a thoroughly unsettling underbelly lurking below the façade of normality, and undercutting every scene is our knowledge of how utterly this village will be ripped apart by the impending start of World War One.

Verdict: An interesting, provocative and evocative effort from one of the most individualistic auteurs working today, The White Ribbon is certain to divide opinion and response. However, it’s also certain to provide talking points about the genesis of Nazism and a world left unrecognisable by the devastation of the Great War. The question is, do we think these people deserve what’s coming to them?

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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