Fans of director Michael Haneke’s work are used to his damning parables of modern times. So the placement of his latest film, The White Ribbon, in the months leading up to World War I, may be jarring at first. In previous outings like Funny Games, Code Unknown, and Caché, Haneke seemed to assert that it is the character of modern life that constitutes the architecture of despair — the media, a chasm-like divide between rich and poor, consumer culture, and war and sickness in foreign lands packaged as TV entertainments.
But The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, opens up a whole other possibility in the grim Haneke oeuvre: that whole nations, even entire generations, of people can be defined by sadism and malice.
Reminiscent of the frosty emotions of Ingmar Bergman and the stylized, comatose pace of Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter, The White Ribbon is so evocative of time and place, so perfect in its casting of realistically doughy, plain-faced people you begin to feel a kind of temporal vertigo: The film could have been made in 1940 or 1970 or anytime in between. With its glowing whites and sooty blacks, the film’s cinematography, by Christian Berger, is an unsettling mixture of surface beauty and subterranean ugliness. Like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, The White Ribbon is one of the most gorgeous films in recent memory, with one of the blackest condemnations of human nature.
Haneke’s suggestion in The White Ribbon is that society itself, especially repression-oriented, patriarchal, drumbeat religious Germany society, creates its monsters from within. The film is narrated by the town schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) from some time in the future. Reflecting back on the village, the teacher becomes the moral voice of the community. He recounts and tries to make sense of a series of crimes that occurred there all those years ago. In these incidents, a nasty bedrock is revealed in the town: incest, exploitation, poverty, violence. There is a disturbing Village of the Damned quality to the local children, who travel in tight, furtive packs and may or may not be involved with a rash of vicious crimes.
But Haneke’s intention is not to create a thriller where we wonder who the culprit is in all these crimes. It is the society itself that is to blame, with its vindictive and unfairly meted out brand of punishing religion and parents who seem to despise their own children.
German society is particularly targeted by the German-born director. His implicit philosophical proposition is, why do people talk about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust as an aberration, when there is as much cruelty and suffering inflicted on a daily basis in normal, polite society? The town doctor (Rainer Bock), who may have contributed to his wife’s unhappy death in childbirth, is a sexual predator who doesn’t stop at his own family. The minister raises his children with a frighteningly firm hand, caning them when they defy him and expecting nothing less than perfection.
In The White Ribbon, childhood is a harsh primer for the adult life ahead. It is easy to feel hurt and sickened by the film for its brutal assault on our cherished notions of an ideal, agrarian past full of well-mannered, decent folk.
Haneke’s film may feel like a letdown to some for its harsh appraisal of human behavior. But for those longing for some intellectually adventurous, gorgeously crafted cinema, set in contemporary Europe or the not-too-distance past, Haneke is your man.