Wholesome Hamlet’s Horror Sends a Jolt to the System
Review by A.O. Scott dez 29, 2009 at nytimes.com
The last shot of Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” is haunting not because it sums up the unnerving, at times horrifying series of events that have filled up the previous 2 hours 25 minutes, but rather because it seems to unfold as if none of them have taken place. Taken alone, the film’s final image might conjure a mood of gentle, pastoral nostalgia. Here, in glowing, understated black and white, we glimpse part of a world that used to be. The camera sits inside an austerely beautiful village church that is illuminated by winter morning sunlight, its pews filling with congregants whose dark clothes and weathered faces bespeak hardy old virtues of work, faith and family.
By now we know otherwise. The only comfort offered by “The White Ribbon,” a chronicle of small-town German life on the eve of World War I, is that the social order it depicts has vanished from the earth. Good riddance to the good old days! But at the same time, Mr. Haneke may intend that sense of distance, of pastness, to be illusory, so that the strangeness of these people and their doings is shadowed by an uncomfortable sense of recognition. We fool ourselves if we think bygones are bygones. We’re on a guilt trip down memory lane. And though the road twists and turns and reveals some pretty scenery, in the end we arrive in a familiar place, to be lectured and scolded by a filmmaker whose rich craft disguises the poverty of his ideas.
Our guide is the village schoolteacher, played on screen in his relative youth (by Christian Friedel) as an earnest, chubby-faced bumbler and in voice-over narration (by Ernst Jacobi) as a ruminative old man. This teacher, who like most of the adult characters in the film is not referred to by name, is by far the most benign if also the most ineffectual authority figure in a place that turns out to be a veritable theme park of patriarchal abuses.
The wholesome facade of this hamlet, with its tidy brick houses and wind-swept wheat fields, where residents tip their hats and address one another with unfailing formality, masks a carnival of cruelty. Children are beaten and molested. Women are silenced and humiliated. Workplace accidents claim the lives of innocent farmwives. Horses and house pets are maimed, cabbages are wantonly decapitated and the only force more fearsome than the brutality of fathers is the innocence of children.
Mr. Haneke, born in 1942 and perhaps the most lauded living European filmmaker with a surname other than Dardenne, traffics in shock and terror, but in a cerebral, systematic way. His films rarely foreshadow their jolts or speed up their plots to generate suspense, but rather proceed, with almost meditative calm, to weave a cocoon of dread around intimations of mystery and implications of violence.
“The White Ribbon,” which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and the top European Film Award this year, is a rare foray out of the clamor and anomie of modern urban Europe that is Mr. Haneke’s favored setting. The film also marks his return to his native German after a decade of mainly French-language films. In it, he uses the sharp elegance of Christian Berger’s monochrome cinematography (achieved by shooting in color, then draining it away), the grammatical precision of old-fashioned speech and the pageantry of period drama to lull and also to inflame the audience’s expectations. The effect is something like a ghost story, the horror of which is at once elusive and pervasive. What is happening here? Why is it happening?
The answer to the first question: a lot of weird stuff. The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is injured when his horse trips over a wire strung across his gate, apparently for just that sinister purpose. That apparently inexplicable crime is followed by others, including the abduction and beating of one small child and the near blinding of another. There are whispers and denunciations, and visits from the police, but no solutions are forthcoming.
Instead, as suspicions multiply, we are led on a tour of several households, which taken together offer a sociological composite portrait of guilt and repression. The schoolteacher, whose courtship of a milky-fresh young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch) provides hints of tender comedy, traffics mainly in rumors and surmises while the camera assumes a position of omniscience. (Unless, that is, it is the vehicle for the narrator’s retroactive speculation or self-protecting deceit, which is not unthinkable.)
In due course we enter the homes of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the town’s principal employer and landowner; the doctor, a widower with two children and an interesting relationship with the midwife (Susanne Lothar); the steward (Josef Bierbichler); a tenant farmer (Branko Samarovski); and, perhaps most important, the pastor (Burghart Klaussner).
Each of these men, with the partial exception of the poor farmer, represents a different face of power. And each one, accordingly, manifests his own special brand of awfulness, mistreating those close to him with methods appropriate to his station. The Baron is cold and sarcastic with his wife (Ursina Lardi). The steward beats his children in a state of volcanic rage, while the pastor does the same in a mood of pious sorrow.
Monstrous as these daddies are, their children may be worse. A gaggle of towheaded darlings walks through the film, their mild smiles so sinister that they might have wandered in from the 1960 British science-fiction horror chestnut “Village of the Damned.” Anyone who has seen Mr. Haneke’s “Cache” or his twin versions of “Funny Games” will be aware that he does not believe in the blamelessness of youth. Quite the contrary: children, in his world, carry the sins of their parents in concentrated, highly toxic form, and are also capable of a pure, motiveless, experimental evil.
What will become of these particular blond children, who are either demons or victims, driven to mischief by severe paternal discipline or so intrinsically bad that no punishment could suffice? Do the math: it’s 1914. In 20 or 30 years, what do you suppose these children will be up to? Our narrator, well into old age, tells us that he is revisiting the strange events in the village to “clarify things that happened in our country” afterward.
But “The White Ribbon” does the opposite, mystifying the historical phenomenon it purports to investigate. Forget about Weimar inflation and the Treaty of Versailles and whatever else you may have learned in school: Nazism was caused by child abuse. Or maybe by the intrinsic sinfulness of human beings. “The White Ribbon” is a whodunit that offers a philosophically and aesthetically unsatisfying answer: everyone. Which is also to say: no one.
The teacher may be Mr. Haneke’s obvious surrogate: an intellectual whose pursuit of the truth is enabled by his inability to change anything. But really the filmmaker is closer to the pastor, his chosen emblem of blindness and hypocrisy. After caning his children for a minor infraction, the pastor makes his oldest son (Leonard Proxauf) and daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) wear white ribbons, which serve both as emblems of shame and reminders of the purity of soul they are in danger of sacrificing. “The White Ribbon” is offered to its grateful, masochistic audience in a similarly punitive and yet oddly forgiving spirit, as a reminder of just how awful we are and how much worse we used to be.