My favourite Haneke so far
Strange things occur in a small village in Germany in 1913, right before the outbreak of World War I. A doctor gets injured in a riding accident that isn’t just an accident. A woman falls to her death. Children get abducted and abused. The deeds are random and cruel. Who is causing them? And what else is going on under the tidy surface? Piece by piece we’re putting together a puzzle through the eyes of the schoolteacher who is looking back on those events from a future perspective. This is the story of The White Ribbon.
The roots of evil
I’ve seen some reviewers claiming that this film should be seen as an attempt to explain where Germany was coming from, to show the soil where the Nazi movement later could spawn and flourish.
And I could see how you could make such an interpretation, but I also think that the movie works fine without the historical context as a study in the dark sides if the human nature.
People do bad things. Sometimes the abusers have been victims of abuse in the past and are so damaged by it that they’ll transfer it to the next generation. Sometimes you can relate it to the environment. People are governed by a political or religious system that has twisted their inner ethical compass. And then there is the third kind of evil, the one for which we lack good explanations. Like Kevin-evil. The village in The White Ribbon contains all forms of evil. With very few exceptions, it’s rotten to the core.
This movie was truly uncomfortable to watch, not to say harrowing, which might sound a little strange considering that it’s a very neat movie, if dark, shot in black and white, not containing much of gore or explicit scene. But there is a certain kind of creepiness that doesn’t require blood to be tangible – the same way as an abundance of blood isn’t a guarantee for a creepy movie (as I wrote about in a previous review of Suspiria).
If you’ve seen some of Ingmar Bergman’s darker movies, you’re probably familiar with this category of discomfort. Do you remember the horrible priest in Fanny & Alexander? He could definitely qualify as a villager in The White Ribbon. The difference is that there’s not just one of him, but several – some of them even worse.
For how uncomfortable it was to watch, I really enjoyed The White Ribbon. The pacing is a little weird; sometimes the movie gets very, very slow, lingering in a shot of something that doesn’t move until you wonder if the DVD has gotten stuck or something. Sometimes the voice-over narrative gets into a quick speed mode and you need to pay attention to keep up with the development. But somehow the mystery kept me interested all the way through, even through the slower parts.
This is the second movie by the Austrian director Michael Haneke I watch and definitely my favorite one. While Benny’s Video felt a bit simplistic in its theme where a boy did terrible things after watching too much TV, The White Ribbon is less obvious and way more intriguing.
I don’t know exactly what happened in that village. But I’m still thinking about it, almost two weeks after watching it and I take that as a sign of quality.
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, Michael Haneke DE/AT 2009) My rating: 4,5/5