Germany is a country haunted by the downsides of collectivism and anti-conformity. The White Ribbon, a haunting film which is in most respects the most formal of Michael Haneke's career, is a film that deals with these downsides. Yet it manages to leave any ideas about the collective and conformity as afterthoughts in the viewer's mind, and this is one of it's greatest overall strength. This is because it works its way, with a remarkably even hand, in to our minds both as a rural memory and a rather spooky whodunit.
The setting is a German village on the eve of the First World War. The quiet farming village recalls the flashbacks in Haneke’s earlier Cache, in which the protagonist, Georg, worked on a farm as a child. The resemblance to that film’s handling of memory is eerily appropriate, considering that The White Ribbon is narrated by an elderly version of the village schoolteacher, played by Christian Friedel, as he looks back on the mysterious events he was witness to. Those events begin with the town doctor being tripped by a wire tied between two trees as he rides his horse home. As a result, he breaks his arm, and is played as a cold and abusive man for the remainder of the film by Rainer Bock. Gradually, the events escalate from hurtfully obnoxious to sadistic; months after the farmer breaks his arm, the Baroness’s cabbage patch is ruined, then a barn is set on fire, then a boy goes missing; later there will be mutilations and deaths. All the while, the schoolteacher is trying to court a shy young girl named Eva (Leonie Benesch). While the story could have easily become a love story that took place amidst horrifying events, it remains something far more sinister here: the relationship between the schoolteacher and Eva is fraught with uneasiness from the start and one always gets the sense that it is somehow beside the point whether or not the character gets the girl. Then the film tips us off: Austria declares war on Yugoslavia in 1914, and it becomes inevitable that Germany will join the war effort. All the murders, traps and wreckage have been precipitating a widespread national chaos; human bondage, to say nothing of romance, does not stand a chance.
If this is an easy way to summarize the trajectory of the story, there is no easy way to summarize the social dynamics, the visual rhythms and the odd narrative choices in this film. The village is inherently un-ordinary, as it appears to be comprised of farmers, businessmen, and a few ultra-wealthy “leaders” who preside over everybody else. Everybody clings to religion and each person has a strict role set for themselves; many of the adult characters, like the schoolteacher, are never given proper names and are merely recognized by their profession. This is a village that is bound to breed abuses of power and rebellions against conformity. That Haneke lets us see exactly who commits two of the crimes—one being a response to an additional crime that goes unrecognized-- is not a narrative inconsistency, but rather a method of hinting that the social hierarchies present in the village are the root cause of all the madness, and that all the citizens are essentially guilty. But it is to Haneke’s credit that the film never feels like a sociology lesson, as some of his earlier films do; as a storyteller, dare we say it, he has reached his peak of maturity.
The most impossible aspect of The White Ribbon to describe is the black-and-white imagery. It is never possible, or appropriate, to explain why black-and-white photography works; it just looks right. Cinematographer Christian Berger has used it to make some surprising choices himself, and has pulled them off. For one, the village never looks evil or corrupted; it is a flat-lying village, blanketed with wheat stalks blowing gently in the breeze. It is usually sunny outside, and when it is night or we are indoors, the shadows are never too dark (with several striking exceptions). Berger’s imagery is a far cry from German Expressionism or Mountain Film-grandiosity; it more closely resembles G.W Bitzer’s lyrical pastoral imagery from several of D.W Griffith’s films. (He is also notable for executing one of the longest fade-outs I have ever seen.)
The most mysterious part of the film is the title itself, which refers to a Christian practice in which a band is tied around a child’s arm after they have ‘sinned’ in order to purify them again. This is also the most ironic aspect of The White Ribbon, because it reflects the notion that Haneke, Berger, and the rest of the crew probably thought they were achieving something closer to pure cinema, after the modernity and experimentation of Haneke’s previous films. But The White Ribbon is still a long way from pure cinema: there are unnecessary dialogue diversions, and there is never a clear sense of the layout of the village, and where people dwell in relation to one another. Perhaps this latter choice was intentional, but it poses too much threat to the overall structure. But the film nonetheless proves that dark films to not have to look dark and a director with a clever spirit can still tone down that clever spirit and mold it in to austerity and quiet agitation. The agitation here is never overt or typically cinematic; it is one that we can feel creeping up on us from those lovely, grassy fields…