Town without pity

This great drama probes the se­crets and lies of a pre­war Ger­man vil­lage, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

IT MAY seem odd – in­deed, faintly ter­ri­fy­ing – to de­scribe the lat­est mas­ter­piece from Michael Haneke as sur­pris­ingly aus­tere. Af­ter all, Haneke, di­rec­tor of Hid­den, Funny Games and The Pi­ano Teacher, is rarely mis­taken for Jerry Lewis. Few less jolly film-mak­ers walk the earth.

Yet most of his pre­vi­ous films have been boosted by oc­ca­sional, dis­crete out­rages – Is­abelle Hup­pert’s self-mu­ti­la­tion in The Pi­ano Teacher, the aw­ful sui­cide in Hid­den – that shift the tone from sever­ity to some­thing more force­fully ap­palling.

Ter­ri­ble things hap­pen in The White Rib­bon, but they hap­pen off­stage or in dark­ened cor­ners of the screen. Here is a film dom­i­nated by the well-scrubbed, un­for­giv­ing hand of the Ger­man Protes­tant church. Pre­sented in icily beau­ti­ful monochrome, The White Rib­bon is dis­ci­plined, emo­tion­ally con­sti­pated and, yes, sur­pris­ingly aus­tere. It may, in­ci­den­tally, be the di­rec­tor’s best film.

Echo­ing the shape and scope of a late-Vic­to­rian novel, The White Rib­bon de­tails life in a north­ern Ger­man vil­lage dur­ing the months lead­ing up to the first World War. This is, ap­par­ently, a place of rel­a­tive plenty, but all kinds of con­ven­tional un­pleas­ant­ness go on be­hind the grand walls and wrought iron gates.

The pas­tor, one of many char­ac­ters not at home to hu­mour, forces his son to sleep with his hands tied to the bed lest he in­dulge in mas­tur­ba­tion. The doc­tor ap­pears to be car­ry­ing on a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with his own daugh­ter. The baron, whose power over the vil­lage still seems feu­dal, veers be­tween faux-pa­ter­nal­ism and out­right despo­tism.

For all its ghast­li­ness, the so­ci­ety looks un­shake­ably solid. There is none of the out­ward deca­dence of 18th-cen­tury France here. Moral de­cay is, for the most part, kept within the home and dis­sent is rarely au­di­ble.

Yet the film be­gins with a strange, ap­par­ently mean­ing­less act of vi­o­lence that trig­gers a sort of cri­sis in the town. A trip­wire brings the doc­tor’s horse to the ground and re­sults in the man’s hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion. Later, two chil­dren are mis­treated, a barn is burnt down and the Baron’s cab­bage field is van­dalised. A kind of rude ter­ror­ist cam­paign is un­der­way.

For large parts of the pic­ture, the viewer is as much con­cerned with dis­cern­ing what ques­tions he or she is be­ing asked as get­ting to grips with any po­ten­tial an­swers. Point­ers ap­pear in an open­ing voiceover by the lo­cal teacher, a rare like­able char­ac­ter, and in the film’s full Ger­man ti­tle. The nar­ra­tor tells us that what we are about to ex­pe­ri­ence may help ex­plain “what came af­ter”. The orig­i­nal ti­tle tells that the film is “Eine Deutsche Kin­dergeschichte” or a Ger­man chil­dren’s story.

From that you may rea­son­ably de­duce that The White Rib­bon – by show­ing, per­haps, how par­ents pass cru­elty through the gen­er­a­tions – is con­cerned with in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ori­gins of Nazism.

With its re­lent­less oblique­ness (so char­ac­ter­is­tic of Haneke), the film seems, how­ever, to have am­bi­tions be­yond a de­sire to map the psy­cho-ge­og­ra­phy of nascent fas­cism. The more you brood on this uniquely res­o­nant drama (a de­served win­ner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes) the more dis­turb­ing things it seems to say about the fragility of bour­geois so­ci­ety’s pro­tec­tive cara­pace.

None of that will sur­prise ob­servers of this di­rec­tor. Yet there is some­thing new here: a few tiny, crys­tal shards of op­ti­mism. The pres­ence of the teacher, with his bum­bling man­ner and book­ish de­cency, sug­gests that we are not all doomed to be­come some class of tyrant. More mov­ingly, an un­der­served act of gen­eros­ity to­wards the pas­tor by his lit­tle son ar­gues that ci­vil­ity can sur­vive in even the most op­pres­sive sur­round­ings.

That is some­thing to hang on to. The White Rib­bon con­tains bad news for us all, but it is also lightly striped with hope. You need such il­lu­mi­na­tions when you’re tread­ing through this much creative aus­ter­ity.

irish­times.com/thet­icket/

Chil­dren care­fully go about their busi­ness in The White Rib­bon

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