Town without pity
This great drama probes the secrets and lies of a prewar German village, writes Donald Clarke
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.
Children carefully go about their business in The White Ribbon