Michael Haneke has brought us the acclaimed Caché and the disturbing Funny Games over the last decade and the Austrian auteur director has continued his run of highly praised movies with the Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band in German). Although Haneke’s uncompromising directorial style has led to some accusations of pretension, the slow-burning, black-and-white drama which forms his latest picture suits him down to the ground.
Following the bizarre events in a north Germany town in 1913, The White Ribbon eventually reveals itself as a hard-hitting critique on the social norms pre-first world war which (it is hinted) will eventually lead to the second. The characters Haneke focuses on are all notionally figures of societal pride and moral responsibility – the doctor, the schoolteacher, the pastor – but as we pass through the film’s quaint opening half hour it becomes abundantly clear that more than just neighbourly goodness lurks within these houses’ walls.
What Haneke does so well in the movie’s opening third is to first of all, set up an uncomfortable scene. We are transported into this turn-of-the-century Teutonic scene via a series of atmospheric panning shots, unafraid to linger for half a minute or more on the idyllic countryside surrounding this insular village. However, the movie’s beginning sees the doctor fall from his horse as a wire is stretched between two trees and this, we’re told by the schoolteacher’s voiceover, is what starts the bizarre events.
After the first half an hour, in which the locals harvest crops for the baron who owns most of the town’s houses and employs it populace, there is an act of rebellion from a farmer’s son and prompts the baron’s anger. His family are sacked and now penniless, and the young farmer is banished. The doctor’s return from hospital does little to settle the mood of uncertainty as his ruptured, incestuous home life is revealed. The pastor’s children begin to act up in worrying fashion, and cruel events grip the town’s mind, with children being abducted, beaten and found utterly traumatised.
Funny Games has already shown Haneke’s adeptness in dealing with the causes and effects of horrible violence, but where The White Ribbon sets itself apart is that it chooses not to show the events themselves. Just as the townspeople keep their secrets locked up behind closed doors, so too Haneke elects to keep the horrendous actions off-camera, nicely paralleling the film’s characters with its plot. It’s mightily unsettling to watch such a quaint-looking down degrade into acts of sadism, torture and suppression.
The grainy black-and-white film that the German director has used is all stark whites and mysterious shadows, whilst also ostensibly helping the early-2oth century setting. The darkness in which the villagers search for missing children is absolute, building tension in a near-Hitchcockian way, and the jump cuts from the depths of night to noontime day strain the eyes as Haneke forces every shot to be scrutinized as we search for clues of the true illicit identities of a populace who aren’t what they seem.
But for all its true brilliance, The White Ribbon does have moments of excessive idiosyncrasy from its director, and does occasionally slow to a near-comatose pace. The long panning shots are lovely to enjoy, but they do occasionally loiter on the same subject a touch too long: I mean, I enjoy a nice street as much as the next man, but there’s a limit, Michael. His characters, especially the kids (who are perform with wonderful creepiness) are fairly well thought-out, but suffer from sheer numbers – some don’t receive the benefits of long screentime as we follow numerous individual stories. In addition, all the adult roles remained unnamed, leaving a bit of a disconnect between audience and character sympathy. There are also points where we wonder what The White Ribbon really wants to be – its part controversial love story, part fantasy-horror and part societal critique and never really settles into any of them, bouncing between all three.
To call The White Ribbon an enjoyable watch would be an overstatement, difficult German cinema seldom could be so described, but it is certainly an interesting proposition. Haneke’s latest may never settle on a genre, but his ability to juggle three different ones with evident relish is certainly worthy of high praise. His film shows a thoroughly unsettling underbelly lurking below the façade of normality, only for us to know how utterly this village will be ripped apart by the impending start of world war one.
7/10 – An interesting, provocative and evocative effort from the most individualistic auteur of the last decade, The White Ribbon is certain to divide opinion and response. However, it’s certain to provide talking points about the genesis of Nazism and a world left unrecognisable by the devastation of the Great War. The question is, do we think these people deserve what’s coming to them?