The White Ribbon

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s superb new film The White Ribbon is a stark and gripping period drama about a German town on the eve of WWI plagued by a series of violent incidents that act as a dark omen of the horrors to come.

The story, narrated by the film’s central character, a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), is structured around a string of misfortunes that befall the citizens of Eichwald, a rural village in Protestant Northern Germany. Half of the townspeople are dependent on the thunderous Baron (Ulrich Tukur) for work and the other half take their spiritual sustenance from the church minister (Burghart Klaussner), who wields the power of the pulpit with understated force.

The film opens as the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse by a tripwire, strung between two trees outside his home, and is badly injured. It was obviously no accident, but the culprits cannot be found. Not long after, a woman working in the Baron’s mill falls through a splintered wooden floor and is killed. Then, over a period of weeks, several children are taken from their homes and found severely beaten in the woods. Later, the Baron’s hay barn is set on fire. Who is behind these troubling events, and what possible motive could they have for destroying the peace? Carefully placed in between these horrors are glimpses of the daily life of the village: the brutal punishments handed down to the children for the slightest infractions, a little boy questioning his nanny about the nature of death, a boy nursing an injured songbird back to health, a sun-dappled courtship between the teacher and a sweet-natured girl (Leonie Benesch).

Photographed in lustrous black and white and stunningly composed with a rigidly static camera, Haneke constructs his story with surgical precision, revealing the dark spots of human behaviour with a delicate scalpel. The White Ribbon is like The Village of the Damned rewritten as Greek tragedy, except the Greeks had a reason for everything. Haneke’s story is not so much a whodunit as a ‘who didn’t’ that contains elements of fable, morality tale and thriller. Like his earlier film Cache, Haneke steadfastly refuses to solve the mystery at the heart of his film. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The White Ribbon is an audacious parable about the psychology of fascism, a portrait of a dysfunctional society, built on mistrust, injustice and fear, which is headed for the chaotic destruction of the First World War. The society these characters have created will not survive the war, but Haneke’s film is about the world that follows after the defeat. Thier children will go on to create an evil and unjust society, built on arrogance, hatred, greed and violence. Where did they learn that from?

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, The White Ribbon is a bold and troubling film that exerts a powerful narrative hold. It’s extraordinary energy and exactitude confirms Haneke as one of contemporary cinema’s most provocative and perceptive minds.

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