The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which won the Palm d’Or in Cannes, is coldly manipulative and, in a way, probably quite facile but, God, it is good. It is so powerfully intriguing that, for 143 minutes, I did not shift in my seat, yawn, sigh, strain to read my watch or even drift into thinking what we might have for dinner (I’d already decided, anyhow; chops). It is set in a small village in Protestant northern Germany just before the first world war and, like Haneke’s other work — Hidden (Caché, 2005); The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, 2001); Funny Games (er…Funny Games, 1997) — it’s the sort of film where you have to find your own way in and then your own way out again while trying to make sense of everything that happens in between. This makes it sound like hard work, but it’s so masterfully stitched, it isn’t, and it is certainly a much more rewarding, absorbing and affecting experience than, say, last week’s Bright Star, in which a tubercular poet went all wan and then coughed all over everybody (Keats, man, love the poems but, for God’s sake, use a hanky!).
It is a stark, austere film in every way. There is no soundtrack as such, just the odd fly humming or baby wailing. It is shot in black and white, usually a sign a film has disappeared right up its own self-regarding, arthouse bottom, but here it seems absolutely right, somehow; gives a suitably purer, cleaner background to events as they unspool. The film moves from house to house in the village, visiting the pastor, the doctor, a tenant farmer, the Baron, the Baron’s steward. It’s narrated by the schoolteacher from some time in the future, so we can never be too sure how reliable he is. Then, just as we are getting used to the community, strange, violent acts start occurring: the doctor’s horse is brought down by a trip wire; the Baron’s cabbages are smashed; there’s an accident at the mill; two children are abducted and tortured. This is not a whodunnit — Haneke is too bleakly original for that — and nothing is ever disclosed. Still, I wouldn’t trust the pastor’s children to baby-sit, although I accept I could be quite wrong and, if so, would not only like to apologise, but will also offer to double the rate and put out their favourite biscuits (to include high-end, individually wrapped ones, like Clubs).
The film has been widely read as a comment on where German society was heading at that time, and we are certainly invited to see it like this. The schoolteacher, at the opening, says he hopes to ‘clarify some things that happened in this country’. The community runs along rigid, patriarchal lines in which male power — particularly over children — is everything. At best, the fathers fail their children and, at worst, are unspeakably cruel. That said, though, if you happen to have a pubescent son here’s a good tip from the pastor: tie his hands to the bed at night if you wish to stop him ‘interfering’ with himself. (I’ve already tried it, and it works!) The suggestion is that the brutalised will themselves brutalise, and that authoritarian fathering ultimately gave rise to the ultimate Vaterland, the Third Reich. There is even a note — discovered in what, in movie terms, is known as The Significant Note Scene — found on the body of one of the abducted children, quoting Exodus and the sins of the fathers being revisited ‘to the third and fourth generations’. And this is where it becomes facile. Wasn’t English society, for example, as rigidly patriarchal at that time? Isn’t it rather more complex than this? What about the other factors involved? The von Trapp kids; they had a pretty authoritarian father, but they didn’t go all Midwich Cuckoo, did they? They formed an internationally famed singing group!
Of course, if you take away the central thesis, then all you are left with is a series of deeply unpleasant episodes, but, actually, it scarcely matters. Haneke’s rigorous control of his material is so unerring, and the acting so eerily and chillingly perfect, it works simply as a portrait of this community at this particular time. And it’s not a film that will just wash over you. Long afterwards, you will still be working at it, rather like that bit of chop caught in a tooth (maybe we should have had fish). I’d go see this if I were you and, if you don’t, I’d like to hear your reasons. Tomorrow. In my office. First thing. I might not viciously cane you but, if I do, I’ll at least be truthful and say the opposite of what the pastor says: this is going to hurt you a lot more than it’s going to hurt me.