A masterclass in film language from Haneke. The acting is superb: simple, direct, true, eschewing trivial behaviourism and only including that which is essential to tell the story. Here's what Philip French had to say.
The White Ribbon
Numerous novelists, dramatists and film-makers have been attracted to the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War to give their work a touch of nostalgia, irony or historical resonance.
- The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)
- Production year: 2009
- Countries: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Rest of the world
- Cert (UK): 15
- Runtime: 143 mins
- Directors: Michael Haneke
- Cast: Burghart Klaussner, Christian Friedel, Josef Bierbichler, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur
JB Priestley, whose life had been transformed by his experiences on the Western Front, was among the earliest with his 1934 play Eden End, set in 1912 Yorkshire. Isabel Colegate's novel The Shooting Party (filmed by Alan Bridges in 1984) takes place at a grand country house in 1913. István Szabó's movie Colonel Redl cuts straight from its eponymous antihero's death to the Austro-Hungarian army going into battle, though it was as early as 1916 that the Austrian wit Karl Kraus launched one of the last century's greatest cliches by having a newsboy enter a Viennese cafe shouting: "Extra! Extra! Archduke Ferdinand assassinated in Sarajevo!"
Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke uses this historical setting in his masterly The White Ribbon, winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes. It isn't, however, until more than two hours into his picture that its timespan is revealed as being from the early summer of 1913 to August the following year. The neat, north German Protestant village has a timeless quality that, with the absence of motor cars, gas and electricity and the reliance on horse-drawn transport and rather primitive bicycles, suggests a feudal community at any time in the late 19th or early 20th century.
At the top of the pile is the Baron, owner of the land and principal employer. Attached to his estate is a burly Steward, and the chief figures in the village are the stern Lutheran Pastor, the Doctor and the 31-year-old Schoolteacher, who is insecure, immature and the only unmarried one among them. Everyone else works on the land and one thinks of them all as archetypes, capitalised as representatives of their social positions. The film's narrator, actually that familiar figure "the unreliable narrator", is the Schoolteacher. From his infirm voice, we infer he's looking back on the events from old age and thus endowing them with special significance, though this is not spelled out.
The Schoolteacher interweaves two narrative threads. One is personal, lyrical and nostalgic: he has fallen in love with the shy new nanny caring for the Baron's three children. The other, dominant, thread is a series of apparent accidents and atrocities that occurs in the village, beginning with the Doctor being seriously injured when his horse is tripped by a wire strung between two trees near his house. It continues with a farmer's wife falling to her death through rotten floorboards at a sawmill owned by the Baron. Then the cabbages on the Baron's land are destroyed with a scythe, there are two brutal abductions, a barn is burnt, a caged bird spiked by a pair of scissors and so on. Only in a couple of cases do we see what happens and who the perpetrators are.
As with Haneke's Code Unknown and Hidden, an air of mystery hangs over the movie and isn't explicitly resolved. It's never, however, less than lucid. Revenge is one possible motive and the children, who move around together in a conspiratorial manner rather like the blond children in British horror flick Village of the Damned, are involved in some way. Indeed, one of them claims to have dreams that foresee the atrocities but the visiting police can't decide whether she's overheard some plotting, is mentally disturbed or has psychic powers.
The White Ribbon is a spellbinding movie, as exciting as a thriller, which, indeed, it resembles. Among other things, it's about an unjust social system yoked to a repressive society that is morally and physically disintegrating, though no one's prepared to confront it. The Baron tyrannises his young Italian wife as if it were his right, until she rebels against a world "blighted by malice, envy and brutality".
In the name of his narrow religion, the Pastor thrashes and humiliates his children, forcing the two older ones to wear the eponymous white ribbons of purity to keep them aware of their sinfulness (the girl's pride, the boy's masturbation). The Steward, craven servant of the Baron, behaves violently towards his sons. The Doctor's transgressive conduct involves his daughter and the midwife. Yet despite all this, Haneke's cool movie never lacks conviction or edges into melodrama.
The picture is shot in a harsh, elegant monochrome and resembles Carl Dreyer's Days of Wrath and The Word, both set in a similarly austere northern European Lutheran communities. But the picture it most reminds me of is Fassbinder's elegant black-and-white Effi Briest, a faithful adaptation of Theodor Fontane's classic 1895 German novel about the subjugation of a young woman by her aristocratic husband.
Another work that comes to mind is Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind's sensational play about sexual suppression in pre-First World War Germany. Wedekind's subtitle, "A Children's Tragedy", is echoed by Haneke's "A German Children's Story".
In an interview in Sight & Sound magazine, Haneke mentions his admiration for Fontane and he also refers to another influence, the great photographer August Sander who in 1910 from his base in Cologne set about producing a taxonomy of German faces and archetypes that he called "People of the 20th Century". He began with farm workers as they're closest to nature. The riveting faces in Haneke's film have an uncanny resemblance to Sander's.
The final long-held shot is an unforgettable tableau of the villagers gathered in a small, bare church just after the outbreak of war, a portrait of a nation on the point of history. Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is being played on the organ, and the camera is viewing the congregation from the position of the altar, as if God himself is observing and interrogating his creations.