While I was watching The White Ribbon, I kept thinking back to how lucky I was that I attended a high school with teachers that turned out to be better than any of the professors I had in college. Without these teachers, I may have never learned that white doesn’t always mean innocence, but it also represents nothingness, which in term represents existentialism. Without these teachers I may have never considered how works such as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis gazed into the 20th century with horror and the fear of living in a world without reason and without salvation. Armed with this knowledge, I was able to sink into the beautiful and stark world of Michael Haneke’s latest film. Submerged in subtext, The White Ribbon is a fantastic film that offers no easy answers and a future both inescapable and inexplicable.
Set in a fictitious village in Germany on the eve of World War I, the events of the film are recited as distant memories of the village’s former schoolteacher who warns us that most of what follows is true, but some is hearsay, rumors, and subject to the flaws of memory. The film begins with a tragedy as the town doctor is injured after his horse trips over a wire that was set by an unknown person or persons. Soon after, a woman dies after falling through the floor while working at the local mill. Surrounding these events but never directly connected to them, there are the creepy flock of the village’s children. Some have compared them to the “Village of the Damned” kids, but I think that’s an unfair and simplistic comparison. These children aren’t possessed or pretending at innocence. They’re far more terrifying as they seem like sociopaths who observe the world but fail to understand emotions or consequences. For example, after the two incidents, we see the pastor’s son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) walking along the railing of a bridge. The schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) shouts at him to come down and when Martin finally does, the teacher confronts the young boy and asks why he would do such a stupid thing. Martin quietly responds that he wanted to see if, in a practical test of his protestant upbringing, God would punish him. The school teacher asks why he would be punished, but Martin, having already received his answer, remains silent.
Unexplained tragedies continue throughout the film and no villager thinks to explore that the children are responsible for these atrocities. And if the children aren’t to blame then no parent can be cast as a sinner. Furthermore, no one thinks twice at the class disparity and the tension that simmers between the educated, wealthy members of the community and those workers who must remain silent for fear of losing their livelihood. Nevertheless, the baron and baroness blame travesties on their servants, and the pastor calls for witchhunts but refuses to consider that his children or any of the children could be responsible for such senseless acts of violence and destruction. At worst, the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) thinks his eldest children, Martin and and Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) are disrespectful and immature, and so he forces them to wear a white ribbon as a reminder of their innocence. But as we know from Moby Dick, white has a more complicated and haunting connotation.
The film runs 145 minutes but it never feels long as I just lost track of time inhabiting this odd, unsettling village where, it’s important to note, not everything is evil or apathetic. On the contrary, because there is no immutable reason or divine retribution, the world is neither good nor evil. An unpredictable cannot be cruel and unforgiving. When Klara kills her father’s beloved pet bird, his youngest son, who had nursed a bird back from health, gives the bird to his father as a replacement. The schoolteacher finds love with Eva, a girl working-class girl from his home town.
But The White Ribbon always keeps the children (i.e. the future) at the periphery. Some are innocent, some are ignorant, some are abused, and others are the abusers. God is not a bulwark against cruelty and the lesson most of these children, especially the privileged ones, will carry as they enter the new century is that they can abuse the weak without consequence from God or man. Setting the film in Germany marks the historical context that these children will be too young to see the horror of the first World War I and then will inflict that horror mercilessly in World War II.
Haneke deserves credit not only for writing a deep and thoughtful script, but by his hypnotic direction. Christian Berger’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography begs for a (preferably Criterion) Blu-ray release and the use of music is brilliant since it’s largely absent from the film except when tragedy is about to strike. The film is multi-layered and is a rewarding intellectual experience that never feels pedantic.
I thank my teachers at The Galloway School for providing me with the knowledge to embrace this film (rather than my cinema studies professors at Oberlin who wanted me to “think about how I think”) and having the confidence to place The White Ribbon alongside “The Scream” and The Metamorphosis as a terrifying-yet-fascinating glimpse into the 20th century as Haneke uses his art to confirm the Munch’s and Kafka’s prediction.