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‘Ribbon’ leaves audience tied up

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


Evil begets evil. That’s the central message in Austrian director Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” a film that examines the causes of World War II. Instead of weaving a typical war narrative around this thematic exploration, however, Haneke sets his story decades before the war, focusing on one tiny village that serves as a representation of everything that went wrong in pre-war Germany.

It is 1913 in the Protestant village of Eichwald, and everything is essentially as it has been for centuries. A traditional, patriarchal structure dominates village life, with the local baron, pastor and doctor reigning as Eichwald’s moral authorities. However, all is not well. Village society begins to creak under the pressure of its repressive, pseudo-feudal structure, in which half the population works the baron’s fields and the church rests at the center of community life.

Suddenly, mysterious incidents start to occur. The doctor (Rainer Brock) falls from his horse after someone sets a trap outside his house. The baron’s young son (Fion Mutert) is kidnapped and beaten. Yet while these events raise concern, no one puts together the pieces of the crime. No one notices how strangely the village’s children have begun acting.

In essence, the film concerns itself with repression—political, religious, societal, sexual and otherwise. The entire village suffers from these forms of repression, and this cycles through all levels of society, including from parent to child.

What’s most striking, however, is the way no one tries to break this system. When one father molests his teenage daughter, nothing is done—even though his mistress knows about it. When the pastor ties his son to his bed due to the fear that his son may be masturbating, the son’s siblings refuse to release him when a fire threatens the house. They completely acquiesce to authority—they fear their father will be angry. It’s a potent commentary on the mindset that led to the atrocities of World War II.

The movie certainly puts traditional conceptions of morality on their head. Moral figures come to represent immorality—the doctor has a torrid sexual affair, while the pastor (Burghart Klauβner) is emotionally and physically abusive. Haneke represents this visually in the form of the eponymous white ribbon, which the pastor’s wife ties onto the arm of her son and daughter as a reminder of Christian virtue, while to the audience it visually echoes the appearance of a Nazi armband.

The film largely runs on the level of an intellectual exercise. As such, Haneke does not intend for his audience to become close to his characters. Few of the characters are given names, and, when they are named, their names are mentioned once and then forgotten. They instead become identified by their role in the community, whether they are the Baron, the Midwife or the Schoolmaster. The viewer only sympathizes with the children, who are physically harmed over the course of the film, and they tend to make only fleeting appearances—something that keeps the audience at arm’s length.

Perhaps the only character with whom the audience can identify is the Schoolmaster (Christian Friedel). As the film’s narrator, he serves as the audience’s gateway into the series of events depicted. The audience can feel close to him in part because, like the audience, he seems to know where this societal repression will lead. The audience also witnesses his courtship of a young nanny (Leonie Benesch), one of the few signs of hope for the future. Still at a distance, however, the audience never learns the Schoolmaster’s name.

Haneke furthers the distance between audience and character through his use of stark black-and-white cinematography. The camera also tends to avoid characters when they’re at their most emotional. When a farmer looks at the dead body of his wife, Haneke chooses not to move the camera—keeping him out of the audience’s view at one of the few times he is truly emotional and human.

“The White Ribbon” proves to be an interesting watch on a general cinematic level, but it’s an especially fascinating intellectual exercise, with its coupling of biting insight with an engaging—and terrifying—mystery that makes for compelling viewing. If one wanted to frame the film in the most conventional terms possible, it would be as a whodunit which is never answered definitively. It is this open ended nature of the story that makes it so horrifying.