There is a biblical, almost fable-like sense to The White Ribbon. Every adult has names like The Baron, or The Doctor, and has faces that look like the last. You can’t ever really trust someone that chooses to live without a name, particularly if these people care for you, or are expected to, at least.
At its core, The White Ribbon is an investigation into the creation of evil. It’s director, Michael Haneke, is interested in those kinds of things, and never better than here. Set in a small German village on the eve of World War One, a world has never felt so oppressive. Shot in muted black and white, the sky nor the earth is anything except a shallow, desperate sort of sludge like grey. It is here that we are told children live. In this black and white world.
Haneke’s film dabbles in the great consequences of terrible actions, and in that way, only really has time for grand ideas. However, his genius lies in his ability to demonstrate this through the hyper focused lens of the characters that we are presented with.
In the first thirty seconds of the film, the doctor’s spine is broken when he falls off his horse, caught by a tripwire. Now, someone must have laid the tripwire, we are told. And the doctor is so ill that he cannot practise until he returns. The film only ever presents us with facts, and we never find out who laid the trap for the doctor’s horse. Over the course of the film, we discover that there are about five different people who could be responsible for this random act of violence, but there is the sneaking suspicion that it was someone else.
Soon, as it all progresses, you begin to learn how to read the film, as more and more acts of violence occur. A father, the Pastor, beats his children with a cane for their supposed transgressions. The Baron’s son is blinded and strung up by his feet. A patch of cabbages is ruined by an angry farmhand on festival day. Seemingly unconnected, the film forces you to piece it together as it unfolds. We are sympathetic to young children, as are we to young adults, we soon discover. The middle ground between the two, and after the latter remain to be seen. Both commit acts of violence.
The Pastor, then, ties a white ribbon around the arms of his two oldest children in the hopes that this would remind them of purity. So, if you’ve been following closely, the main conflict of the film becomes apparent, and indeed, the main idea is presented. The violence enacted on children by those caring for them serves only to perpetuate violence. Haneke’s film gets us here pretty quickly. It’s the fact that he never lets us leave that elevates this film. At every turn, we are presented with this idea, and at every turn, we reject it.
Never fully, are we quite prepared to understand the truth of the violence within the film, even when it is laid plain for us. We, like the adults of this town, decide that it could not possibly be true.
There are subplots, and I find myself unable to really and fully describe them to the extent that I might want to, this being an article for a school newspaper. Let’s just say that brutality, in all forms, haunts the furthest reaches of this town. There are very few morally good characters, and their fate, always, is the same as death, of one form or another.
The film then ends. Very, very abruptly. Almost terrifyingly so. World War One rolls in, and everything is irreparably changed.
I can honestly say I haven’t seen a film like Haneke’s for a very long time, nor will I watch another like it again for a little while. Mainly because it wholly and totally broke me for about a week, but also because films as clever as this one are few and far between. It’s not a showy form of clever, nor a quiet contentment in it’s cleverness. It’s just brilliant, and unafraid to demonstrate it. Every turn is excellent, every beat leading you down several garden paths, to, essentially, an endless set of questions without any real answers.