Technically, the film is a marvel – this is Heneke’s first black and white film and it’s simply dazzling.
The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke
There’s always a certain kind of dread in a Mikael Haneke film. It could perhaps be do his reputation for exploring some of the most shocking aspects of society, but I think he simply knows how to use tension in a film. He’s a master at making his audience uncomfortable, more than most horror filmmakers. His latest The White Ribbon seems to have taken its inspiration from Children of the Corn or more appropriately Village of the Dammed in the way he films children in a menacing light. No one trusts them. The film is about the sickness of paranoia and how it tears this seemingly wholesome German village into what feels like a horror film.
In the years before WWI we follow a group of townspeople. The Baron owns the land and most of the villager’s farm on it. There’s the well-respected members of the town: the doctor, and the priest. The closest thing to a protagonist in film is the teacher (who is also the film’s narrator). The fabric of this town starts to unravel as many bizarre incidents begin to occur. The doctor is trampled on his horse while on his daily route by a wire clearly placed for him. The Barron’s barn is burned to the ground. A child is brutalized and left for dead in the forest. The townspeople become up in arms and everyone is a suspect. But the blame always seems to trickle down to the children. Behind closed doors the priest beats his kids after he assumes they lied about the horse-trampling incident. The teacher becomes suspicious after noticing them hanging around near every crime scene. But the hypocrisy is everywhere, the priest may suspect his children of something and punish them but when the teacher suggests they could be responsible for a more heinous act, the he becomes so offended he can barely hold his composure.
So who is responsible? The children? Terrorists? I think that’s the last thing that Heneke is interested in. He wants to see what little it takes for a small village to turn into a mini fascist state. Given all the lies and accusations centering on the children, if they aren’t monsters at the beginning of the film Heneke gives us clues that they may have become one by the end. Many think that the film is about the origins of Nazi Germany but I think there is a much broader context. You could apply this to our “War on Terror,” but the only thing the film makes a direct allusion to is the events leading up to WWI. It ties in with the film perfectly and makes for a satisfying viewing despite the unsolved mysteries. We see the effects of accusation and fear on both the large and small scale.
Despite all this seriousness, the film is surprisingly watchable. Haneke knows how to leave little clues to keep the audience guessing and engaged in the proceedings. And tucked in the middle of the madness is a sweet little love story between the teacher and baroness’ nanny. Heneke has never filmed something so sweet and lovely in his entire career. It keeps the film from being too claustrophobic. We simply watch the young couple stroll through the fields blushing. Technically, the film is a marvel – this is Heneke’s first black and white film and it’s simply dazzling. He goes for one ambitious shot after another, each one brilliantly staged and composed.