Clinical, commanding, and utterly draining, Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon is a severe, blood-curling, and uncannily beautiful foreign-language drama. Perfectly cast and irreproachably acted, it has a seductively novelistic appearance, a less-than-omniscient narrator, and a tone that freezes the warmest of audiences.
Set in Eichwald, a fictional German village, on the eve of World War I, a series of unfortunate events – vandalism, fires, accidents, and abductions – turns the community against itself and shatters what remains of a fragile social consensus. In crisp, painterly black-and-white, we see crops being harvested, people gathering for school or Mass, snow falling on churches and homes, as the baron, the pastor, and the doctor rule over the farmers, the women, and the children.
Writer-director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Caché) pulls no punches. Capturing a mood of thickening tension and mounting savagery, The White Ribbon is a mannered, calculated gamble compared to his previous films. Nonetheless, he treats his dozen characters so coldly that they are like rats in a scientific experiment. Though no violence beyond a slap or a beating is ever shown on screen, The White Ribbon is ghastly; we shudder so that we may not truly see.
That said, we go to Haneke’s films to gaze through a glass darkly. He raises issues of gender, religion, class, family, then pushes them to the side, and the lack of exploitation illustrates his themes that much more effectively. The retaliatory violence suggests that any act of forgiveness could break the chain of malice. Yet no one takes the opportunity: by extension, everyone is complicit in the crimes. It’s as if each has thrown away the parental ribbon of innocence and sought out the darkness. The white glow of the skyline contrasts sharply with the shadowy intentions, with the blackness of the hearts.
The craftsmanship, well-proportioned narrative, and icy visual polish cannot be denied; every moment is the product of a steady talent and a penetrating mind. As such, it’s a luminous portrayal of concealed evil, but what’s portrayed will shock or numb you. With its frosty photography, its rural European setting, and its story about child-rearing, young love, and religion, Haneke learned from, and is reciting, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, among others. It’s hard to imagine a more potent successor to their authoritative expeditions in the 1950s (Ordet, The Seventh Seal).
Education is one of the decisive points in human experience, and Haneke’s signature obsessions surrounding it – bourgeois control, sexual repression, emotional cruelty – simmer as subtext before bursting into the open in the final reels. It’s akin to auditing a seminar on incipient fascism taught by a master filmmaker who speaks in a murmur, confident of his research.
Not overtly political until the end, The White Ribbon refuses to be reductive, even when it would be easy. Its subdued, deflected rage is expressed as a whisper, a noble exit, and a few simple words about the horrors to come. But it’s one more example of a solitary act of violence that unleashes a cataclysm. In an interview with Salon, Haneke explained that his pictures end “in the head of the viewer, not on the screen.” In the present age, that’s a nearly unrivaled approach to artistic creation.
Stern, smarting like hell, and cutting like the scythe used to devastate the Baroness’ cabbages, The White Ribbon is impeccably shot, immaculately directed, allegorically ambitious, and profoundly disturbing. Do we really grow so apprehensive of danger that we will espouse perversion and surrender freedom in an attempt to avoid it? This is a plunge into the hell of human nature; enter only if you dare.