Not as black and white as it looks
The White Ribbon, drama, rated R, CCA Cinematheque, 3.5 chiles The White Ribbon is a portrait of a pastoral village in 1913-1914 Germany. It’s a beautifully shot, quiet examination of what appears to have been a simpler time, when people worked the land and their entire lives existed within the boundaries of their community. On a passing glance, it appears to be the kind of film that audiences in 2010 seek out as escapism from the complexities and stresses of our modern world.
As this is a film from Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke ( Caché), however, life in the burg is anything but idyllic. Haneke is one of the most celebrated directors in the world— The White Ribbon won the Palme D’Or at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival and is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award — but he isn’t concerned with nostalgia. The director’s specialty is cruelty: the causes of it, and the consequences of it. He treats the village like a pot of water on a burner, and slowly brings it to boil, one angry bubble at a time.
The first bubble rises early in the film. The town’s doctor (Rainer Bock) is riding home when his horse is tripped by a wire stretched across his property. The doctor is badly injured. It is the first of several violent incidents, seemingly inflicted at random. The stage is set for a whodunit, but Haneke doesn’t seem interested in who done it. The police look into the incidents when the local baron’s son becomes a victim, but the director’s eye wanders from the investigation and lingers on motive and the very environment that could have given birth to such a crime.
There is a clear power structure in town. The citizens, mostly peasants, are subservient to the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and the steward (Josef Bierbichler), and in a different way, to the preacher (Burghart Klaussner). The men are not shy about degrading and humiliating the women in their lives, and children are ruled with the rod. The only character to experience joy is the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who falls in love and provides the film with its few happy scenes. The teacher narrates the story as an old man taking a stroll down memory lane, offering bits of context and a nonjudgmental perspective.
Surprisingly, the movie that The White Ribbon reminds me of the most is the 1960 horror classic Village of the Damned. Both films are rendered in black and white. Both are centered on one small town and the generational divide that exists there. The children in both movies seem to lurk about. They are expressionless, joyless, and appear to share in a peculiar groupthink. You worry for the children who stand out in The White Ribbon, such as the foppish, feminine boy and the child with Down syndrome, but it is difficult to summon sympathy for the rest, who passively accept the physical and emotional abuse that their parents heap on them and coldly regard the pain of others.
If you haven’t guessed by now, this is not a particularly pleasant viewing experience. But don’t confuse unpleasant with punishing. Despite having an interest in darker material, Haneke rarely veers into sadism (with the notable exception of Funny Games). He examines cruelty as a basic— if unfortunate— part of the human experience. This leaves his moral compass open to different readings, and I don’t agree with some of the conclusions he reaches. For example, I don’t fully believe that the sins of the father are passed on to the children, and that appears to be his contention here. But it is refreshing to have the darker sides of human nature explored in a mature fashion.
It helps when a film looks this good. The camerawork by Christian Berger is confident and often quite beautiful. He frames exquisite exteriors of fields of grain and stately buildings. For the interior shots, he makes a brave yet highly effective decision to hold the camera in hallways for extended lengths of time, with much of the action partially obscured by door frames or behind a closed door entirely. This gives the viewer the impression of eavesdropping on the characters’ lives without intruding on them.
The one flaw of the film is that it can occasionally feel like, well, watching a pot of water boil. With no musical score and an unwavering tone, the relentless rhythm of small town life can be oppressive. There’s a strange feeling of displacement here. Berger shot the film in color and then converted it to black and white in postproduction, giving it an unnatural, modern look. This stylistic choice is part of what makes the film memorable, but I’m not sure how well it serves the story.
The ribbon of the title refers to a punishment administered by the pastor. He makes his oldest son and daughter wear ribbons on their arms to shame them and remind them of the innocence that they are on the brink of losing. This also serves as a reminder to the audience as to what the whole country is about to lose, as the populace stands on the precipice ofWorldWar I. In a few decades, some of these children will be swapping the white ribbons out for armbands with swastikas. This shadow looms over the proceedings, but the movie doesn’t search for causes of the imminent changes in Germany’s fabric so much as it reminds us that the days of innocence weren’t actually all that innocent. It seems like a simplistic message to arrive at, but it’s one that we constantly need to be reminded of, as we constantly fall into the trap of yearning for a pastoral time that never actually existed.
Seen but not heard: Thibault Sérié