Film Reviews

The White Ribbon Michael Haneke

Rating - 7/10

While maintaining the distinctive despondent presence of its director, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon deviates from his previous oeuvre in its originating German language and period of focus.  As a black-and-white anecdote set in a 1913 fictitious Protestant village of Eichwald, Germany, the film emerges as a complex and ambiguous allegory.  The most routinely evident commentary is that of the lost innocence of youth and the malicious intentions obscured by an angelic perception of children.  Haneke additionally provokes audiences by assessing the responsibilities of adulthood and the repressed anxieties of the pre-Industrial era, which each facilitate a climate of suspicion.  While The White Ribbon will inevitably be labeled as a period piece, it more accurately serves as an insightful psychological examination of the universality of human nature with a large core set of characters separated by bizarre, unknown and malevolent violence and accruing conspiracy.  A lengthy running time of 144 minutes may hinder absolute relevance, but its diverse cast and beautiful natural lighting from cinematographer Christian Berger both add indelible splendor to the often demanding morality tale.  Furthermore, with a contention towards irresolution, The White Ribbon's final minutes are eerily extraneous and seem haphazardly abridged, adjoined by mere précis narration rather than a degree of visual expulsion, which in turn rob the film of its unique harbored energy. 

Establishing an ominous spirit, the starkly silent and short introductory credit sequence harnesses the grim essence of Michael Haneke; the text is subsequently broken by a nameless narrator illuminating the disquieting events of his past with a hope that the recreation will further grant peace and foster an intrinsic reconciliation.  As the film will eventually portray the narrator in physical form, the tone of his voice at the onset of the film remains of curious interest.  Haneke authentically captures his aged timbre of experience, lending viewers to perceive the story as a subjective account yet as truthful and dignified as memory allows.  However, as the narrator reveals the incipient events in an announcement of the ill-fate of the village by way of the doctor's riding accident and a deliberately set trip-wire, The White Ribbon's oblique and indirect nature overshadows these remedial or resolute intentions.  While the narrator hopes to unearth information by revisiting the actions of each member of the village, the film, like any other Haneke picture, epitomizes the meaning of an arduous journey itself and resists a tidy constrained ending.  Moreover, while the film is delivered from an individual's point of view and depicts an abundance of main and supporting roles, a distinctive harshness or inhumanity still clutches its negative narrative emphases and lack of means to achieve forgiveness.  As a director, Haneke has become known for his bleak critiques of society, aggressively realized in his French films like the sadomasochistic character study of The Piano Teacher and the hostile post-apocalyptic environment of Time of the Wolf.  Yet, through the bitterness and hostility lies a seed of warmth and hope embedded within a few relationships, particularly the one between the narrator and his young sweetheart, Eva, which remains an institution for the narrator's own investment in this particular period of his life.

To contrast the general speculative and ominous mood that develops by way of the narrator's reminiscence, an unexpected compassion is captured within the narrator's courtship of Eva, the baron's new young nanny.  Through his retelling of the relentless turmoil, the narrator finds comfort in Eva’s purity and timid simplicity.  After Eva is fired and cast away from the baron’s estate for irrational reasons related to insidious suspicions, Eva returns home to her family and seeks other employment as a hairdresser.  At this point, the couple begins to exchange letters, which are then read by the narrator to transition scenes.  Aided by the comforting words of his significant other, the film layers the words with longshots of pastoral landscapes before delving into the more solemn incidents at hand.  Fully acknowledging the director's past repertoire, this technique captures Haneke’s sincere attempts to allow the relationship to blossom.  Ultimately, though, love does not assume center stage amidst the unfurling malice.  There are, however, brief exceptions in The White Ribbon as in the optimism and good will that exists between the pastor and his young son, Rudi.  While his other children attempt to rebel against the persecuting religious laws, Rudi consistently favors to please his father.  Early in the film he presents a wounded bird in his father's study to ask if he can heal it.  His father lectures him in sentimentalities of emotional attachment but eventually accommodates him, recognizing his geniality.  Later in the film, after the pastor finds his own parakeet dead, Rudi returns to his father with the bird he had healed as a token of affection.  These scenes, in contrast to much of the film's generally repressed adolescent conspiring, embody the ideal characteristics of the white ribbon, a principal and glorified symbol, which the pastor proceeds to tie in the hair of his children after a misdeed to remind them of their withering innocence.

A symbolic reference to religion, the film's title encompasses all that correlates to male authority figures and relationships to God.  A strict pastor, doctor and baron survey the town and assess the misdeeds of those closest to them.  In the opening scenes, the pastor is seen punishing his children for not returning home at a specified time.  By modern standards, a triviality pervades the sequence, but the puritanical nature of the pastor forces a domineering extremism that emerges in his punishment of "ten strokes of the cane" for each child.  He also ties a white ribbon in the hair of his sons and daughters to remind them of their innocence and purity.  A blunt criticism to this supposition, Haneke juxtaposes scenes that suggestively expose the children as daredevils and general troublemakers as a result of intense oppression.  For instance, the pastor's son, Martin, walks on a slim suspension beam of a bridge that overlooks a river below.  The narrator urgently attempts to stop his foolish behavior, but Martin replies in a careless tone, removed from the reality of any misdeed.  "I gave God the chance to kill me, and he didn't... I'm pleased," he declares.  Many of the children, like Martin, intend on testing the will of the parents and God to witness any resulting consequences.  In a revelatory moment for the narrator near the conclusion of the film, he recalls the ill-fate of the town's dwellers (farmer and his wife, the baron’s son Sigmund and the midwife’s handicapped son Karli) in relationship to the presence of children at the discovery of each incident.  While the younger characters in the film are dependent on adults for supervision, they rebel against the tyranny of their parents and guardians to turn the supposed ritualistic lessons against them.  The facilitation of moral predicaments and children's ability to usurp the misguided preconceptions of adults remain central themes in The White Ribbon.  If the village's doctor, who saves lives yet violates his own daughter can endure, the same can apply for Klara, Martin, Adolf, Ferdinand, Max, and the other minors who contribute to their families yet engage in conspicuous activities.

Until its final few minutes, The White Ribbon remains a moral yarn of a village's gradual deterioration through conspiracy and hidden agendas.  The chaos and unrest comes to a head when the pastor's children spot a fire in a barn on the lord of the manor’s estate; subsequent revelations include the baroness' affair with a banker, the midwife's fleeing town with her secret lover to avoid persecution, and the peculiar clairvoyance of the young Erna, who confides in the narrator her perception of materializing dreams.  Of course the narrator disbelieves these supernatural accounts, instead favoring the practical idea that the other children are to blame for Erna's corrupted conscience; in other words, they were able to infiltrate a cognitive barrier to make her believe the events were dreamt.  Related to the idea of psychological manipulation, in the Austrian newspaper Kurier, Haneke has outlined The White Ribbon as "the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature."  Essentially, this stark comment relates to the duality of human nature, fascism, and the idea of revenge that assumes control of seemingly benevolent people.  It is a vicious unending cycle at the core of the film as well; through desire to affix blame, ill-temperament and conspiracy spreads and then infects like a malicious disease.  Although critics like Doundou Tchil have forced an allegorical meaning from the looming presence of World War I, it merely appears as a historical footnote in the narrator's story in an attempt to provide more emotional and geographical context.  The rapid close to the film, however, fails to contribute much beyond the involvement of the narrator himself and propels a premature close.