Disturbingly beautiful ‘White Ribbon’ ponders the nature of evil
Where does evil come from? Is it sheer, blind chance, an unfortunate genetic malfunction, a random fluke of an uncaring universe? Or is it seeded and grown like a living thing, to be rooted and nurtured in a particular hothouse environment of intolerance and injustice, malice, brutality and fear? Filmmaker Michael Haneke invites us to consider this question in The White Ribbon, his disturbingly beautiful drama that imagines life in a remote German village in the generation before Hitler’s rise to power. More complex than a simple parable, it’s a stately piece of dramatic fiction with the dread-generating intensity of a horror movie.
The film is expertly shot by cinematographer Christian Berger in deep, pearlescent black-and-white, full of ominous shadows and mystery, which reinforces the sense of a vintage horror movie. This feels appropriate to the unraveling of a mystery plot involving sinister doings among the villagers, but viewers expecting a crisp, conventional whodunit with a tidy resolution will be disappointed. Few answers emerge as the story plays out, only a burgeoning miasma of possibilities; the film’s bold, graphic look provides ironic counterpoint to a drama in which nothing is ever completely black or white.
The story unfolds in a small agrarian hamlet, ca. 1913. In another year or so, the declaration of World War I will jump-start the new century with a vengeance, but for now, village life conforms to the feudal patterns of ancient times. Most of the families are tenant farmers working land owned by a powerful baron and his elegant wife. But even the lowliest peasant laborer is a feudal lord in his own home, where women and children alike are held captive in helpless obedience. Their children are taught by the meek, self-effacing young bachelor schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who narrates the story as an old man recollecting events.
Over a few months, a series of suspicious and frightening incidents upset their orderly lives. The village doctor is seriously injured in a fall from his horse. A farmer’s wife dies in an accident in the baron’s mill house. Fire, suicide, attempted murder, and disappearing children all add to the villagers’ unease. When the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) demands his congregation root out the evil in its midst, as the schoolteacher recalls, it leads to “a flood of mutual suspicions and denunciations.”
But as Haneke deftly reveals, the malaise is already evident in every village household, in the ordinary course of daily life. Most children (including—indeed, especially—those of the smugly paternalistic pastor) are routinely brutalized by their fathers for minor infractions, either punched, slapped or physically, beaten, or psychologically abused. (The white ribbon of the film’s title is a mark of shame tied to the arms of misbehaving youngsters to symbolize their “lost purity.”)
Women and girls are confined in long, black dresses and severe braided buns, and neither wives, servants, housekeepers, nor daughters are exempt from the sexual demands or violent rages of their menfolk. The one moment of joy attached to a physical relationship—when a clumsy tryst with the doctor (Rainer Bock ) elicits a fleeting smile out of his stoic mistress (the wonderful Susanne Lothar)—is belied a few scenes later when he discards her with callous contempt.
This holy trinity of authority (church, state, science) remains impervious to reason, that is, the meek forays of the ineffectual schoolteacher to plumb its depths and ferret out the truth. And as these various interconnected stories play out, viewers too may find themselves stumbling over an accumulation of small details that never quite add up. It may be frustrating in retrospect trying to fit all the pieces together, but Haneke makes the point that few things in life are ever a simple matter of cause and effect, and the horrors visited on one generation can never entirely explain (much less excuse) whatever havoc they might wreak in the next. History may have its reasons, but they operate in the grey zone that defies easy comprehension.
THE WHITE RIBBON ★★★ Watch movie trailer >>>
With Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaubner, and Rainer Bock. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. A Sonly Classics release. Rated R. 140 minutes. In German with English subtitles.