Michael Haneke’s films always stay with me for days after an initial viewing and often leave me with a sense of unease. Something is off, but you don’t know exactly what it is, and you don’t know where to look to confirm your suspicions. A second viewing may help, but ultimately he leaves ample space for a viewer to draw his or her own conclusion.
Written and directed by Haneke, The White Ribbon tells the story of a small German village on the eve of World War I. The story unfolds through the narration of a young School Teacher, who throughout the film remains something of an outsider. Initially we see an idyllic small town, but as a sequence of strange incidents occur in the village, harming the property and townspeople, we quickly release that there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Who is responsible for causing such harm? More importantly, why are they doing it?
We see children regularly suffer under their parent’s staunch religious fundamentalism. We see the effect that the emphasis on religion, coupled with the absence of affection, produces. Martin, one of the children explains, after the School Teacher witnesses him putting himself in danger’s way, “I gave God a chance to kill me. He didn’t do it, so he’s pleased with me”. The townspeople are cruel to each other; there are socio-economic tensions; and suspicions are rife.
There is space in The White Ribbon. The cinematography is typically still, a single camera angle is held for far longer than we expect, as though the camera lense is the audience’s eye watching the events unfold from a corner of the room on set. The narrative is not overly complicated, but the audience is never privy to the entire story. While never being slow or boring, there is space for the audience to digest each movement, to contemplate the possible significance or messages of the film.
It is of course implied that the children of the town will grow up to be the adults of World War II Germany. Does this film then attempt to rationalise some of the atrocities of World War II? Does it examine a breeding ground for fascism? I personally don’t think that the film is confined to a commentary on World War II Germany, it is so much more than that. For an in-depth review and discussion see this Slant House Next Door article.
This film is engaging, gut-wrenchingly creepy and intellectually stimulating. It is yet another demonstration of Haneke’s genius.