No Haneke panky in The White Ribbon

February 11, 2010

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Michael Haneke must hate Sherlock Holmes. His newest movie, The White Ribbon, is a whodunit without a who—there’s no butler with a grudge, spurned lover, or jealous colleague lurking in the shadows. Bad things just happen.

The White Ribbon is narrated by The School Teacher, an elderly man who tells the story to “clarify things that happened in our country.” In the waning months before World War I erupts across Europe, the fictitious German village of Eichwald rots from within. A taut wire trips a horse, badly injuring its rider. A boy—the son of The Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the head of the manor which supports most of the village—is kidnapped, tied up, and beaten. Sigi, a mentally retarded boy, is nearly blinded. The School Teacher observes it all, yet he provides neither theories nor opinions—only facts.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

But The White Ribbon isn’t about the gruesome crimes in Eichwald. The acts point to general social decay within the village; few are not at fault. The White Ribbon isn’t about their collective guilt, though. It’s about the children of Eichwald, the Germans who grow up to become Nazis. The Pastor (Burghart Klaußner), the religious leader of the village, punishes his children by forcing them to wear white ribbons. Their punishment is a reminder that they are no longer innocent or pure but the audience has to wonder, were they ever? The School Teacher confronts a group of children about the crimes, but like the audience, he never finds his answer. He is left with a question: If children are neither innocent nor pure, can anyone be? Haneke says no.

It’s rare to create a captivating movie, rarer still to create one based on a turn-of-the-century German village. The movie’s cinematography is superb—especially because the editors had the unenviable task of stripping the film to black and white coloring. Audiences get to peek in at Eichwald without becoming voyeurs, since most shots create distance between the camera and the characters. In The White Ribbon’s final scene, as the townsfolk shuffle into mass after news about Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination reaches Eichwald, the camera is at the foot of the altar, symmetrically splitting the congregation. Men and women walk in, heads bowed, ready to pray for salvation. Their war had already started.

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