The White Ribbon
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Josef Bierbichler
Run time: 144 minutes, Year: 2009
How to explain Michael Haneke’s own cinematic dealings with suspense and subtlety?
First of all, his gaze focuses entirely on what is happening, not why or who. For example, a several crimes are committed and we viewers never get to find out who have committed them. (This is true of this movie The White Ribbon as well as his magnum opus, Cache.) We can speculate, of course, but he leaves the mystery bloated and hung in the air, and this tendency of his can frustrate a fair number of audiences, but his focus is what the story is about, that is, what is happening. What has happened deserves our most attention, regardless of why or who caused them. In sense, isn’t that what life is? Things happen. “Why?” is always subjective.
The story in The White Ribbon takes places in a small German village right before the World War I. Everyone knows everyone in this countryside village, and no one locks their doors even at night. Each house has many children (on average 5 children per household, it seems), and a baron and baroness own much of the land, lending them to farmers for work. The village also has a steward, a pastor, and a doctor, the vocations that grant some power to yield. The sense of community is firm.
When the story begins, an old man’s voice narrates. Apparently, he’s looking back on what happened in that village many years ago, and he admits forthright that his account is by no means complete, objective, or correct. He tells of strange crimes that have taken place in that village over a year, and he shares his own interpretation. The entire story is this old man’s interpretation. Back then, he was a young teacher who taught music to children. He is attracted to this new nanny, Eva, and courts her. He genuinely is concerned with the well-being of children, and he is in a rare position in this village (in social standing, higher up than farmers and children but lower than doctor, pastor, and steward). We viewers are convinced that his narration is trustworthy.
A doctor riding a horse trips over the wire set up between two trees by an unknown culprit and is indisposed severely. A farmer’s wife falls through the second-story floor and dies on impact. The baron’s child is kidnapped and beaten. A barn is set on fire at night. A retarded boy named Karli is abducted and blinded. These are the disclosed crimes that is announced to the entire village. The baron announces that the culprit is among them and urges them to cooperate in searching. However, scarier crimes are being committed behind the closed doors, the crimes that only the culprit and victim know about, and these crimes are laid bare for us viewers; a doctor abusing his own daughter sexually, a pastor tying his son’s arms to bed railing so that he can’t masturbate, a steward mercilessly beating his own son because of his shitty mood, and a midwife who’s sleeping with the doctor, the woman who might be responsible for the death of doctor’s wife a few years ago. These crimes are the secrets the characters harbor deep inside them.
Michael Haneke said in the interview that the movie is about “the roots of evil.” As I mentioned previously, the culprit to the “major” crimes is never found. The teacher believes that it is children who’ve committed them, but there’s no hard proof. Of course, when Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated, precipitating the first Great War, these crimes are soon forgotten. The question of “the roots of evil” is, undoubtedly a difficult one, but in this movie, Haneke seems to suggest the starting point for such discussion. Evil is embedded in us, and it is there to witness when we focus on what’s being done. There is no difference between “major” crimes and “secret, minor” crimes, and no savior on cross can ever cleanse us of our sins. Often, we’re too obsessed with scapegoating, through which a vicarious purifying process happens in one’s mind. It’s them who’re doing the wrongs; it’s never us, we’d like to believe.
Michael Haneke is one of the most important film makers alive in this age of consumerism, which has negatively affected the artistic merits of film making. His movies are important and always thought provoking, as I believe all movies should be. He is a master of formalistic techniques in cinema also, so that his choice of the ways of telling also tells in parallel the story the sequences of events are telling.
At times repulsive, creepy but never within the slow boiling of suspense and dread, The White Ribbon is a great achievement in cinema history. It rightly won the 2009 Cannes Festival award.