Features Live Action Movies

The White Ribbon
(Das Weiße Band)

Director – Michael Haneke – 2009 – Germany – Cert. 15 – 144m

Reviewed for Third Way magazine to coincide with UK release date 13/11/2009.

Haneke’s first period drama for the big screen is set in 1913-14 in a Northern German Protestant village where strange accidents befall the community. A doctor (Rainer Bock), out riding a regular route, is brought down and injured by a wire between two trees. The wife of a farm labourer is killed when factory floorboards give way beneath her. Children are abducted. A baby’s window is left open in Midwinter. A building burns. But who is – or are – responsible?

The film sets out its cast of characters in terms of the social hierarchy. The landowning classes are represented by the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur), his wife (Ursina Lardi) and their child; the professional classes by a widowed doctor, the midwife (Susanne Lothar) “who has made herself useful to him”, the Baron’s steward (Josef Bierbichler), the village Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and the local teacher (Christian Friedel) – also as an old man the narrator (Ernst Jacobi) – who is courting the nanny of the Baron’s son; the working classes by numerous agricultural labourers who generally feature less prominently in the story. The village children also play a prominent role.

The camerawork is black and white, the language German (subtitled in English). Always something of a perfectionist, Haneke is as rigorous with the images he puts on screen here as he has ever been. For instance, a scene in which the Pastor administers corporal punishment to his children is constructed around a view of a closed door, from which the camera moves away and to which it returns, and from behind which the eldest boy must come to retrieve a cane and take it back through the door.

Such studied, painstaking mise-en-scene allows the director to deliver some highly effective material, giving away only the information he intends and no more, leaving the audience to do much of the work themselves. The kitchen scene in which the doctor, having had sex there with the midwife, tells her she disgusts him is devastatingly cruel in its simplicity. The narrative tackles a whole gamut of difficult areas – sometimes head on, sometimes more obliquely – for instance, the class system, the role of punishment in organised religion, child abuse, the way a society deals with the idea and fact of death and mortality, and more.

It’s rather like watching a society having its dirty laundry dragged out into the open to be aired in public amidst a mixture of known facts, half-truths and hearsay. The children are a group presence reminiscent of the malevolent aliens in Village Of The Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960),, but as in Twin Peaks (TV series, creators: David Lynch, Mark Frost, 1990-91) there are many others to whom motives for various of the crimes can equally be attributed and Haneke refuses to hand us on a plate easy solutions to his compelling riddles.

The teacher and the nanny, both outsiders, are arguably the only two untainted characters in the fallen world of the village. Witness the scene in which he plans to take her on a surprise picnic, at which she panics fearing his motives to be less than pure, in response to which he simply turns the horse and cart around to cancel the honestly-intentioned but easily misinterpreted outing.

Yet if the pair are supposed to be good, there’s something ineffectual about them, Haneke investing them with a powerlessness in the face of an insidious corruption underpinning everything. And since it’s the teacher telling the story, his voice-over only tells us what he knows and deduces – although the film shows us other scenes beyond what he would know first hand.

Right at the end, War is declared, and the teacher tells us he left the village never to return. But the viewer may well want to return to this extraordinary puzzle of a film to try and piece the events together on subsequent viewings. It’s been a long time since Haneke’s made anything of quite the same stature as the original Funny Games (1997) or The Piano Teacher (2001), despite Hidden (2005) in the interim (which film this writer didn’t regard anything like as highly as did others). The White Ribbon, however, marks a return to form.


One reply on “The White Ribbon
(Das Weiße Band)”

Because Michael Haneke is an Austrian I just want to mention that Austria then was the third country worldwide to ban child corporal punishment in 1989. Austria is also ranked third in the new Global Peace Index and Austrian peace researcher Franz Jedlicka argues that a nonviolent childhood is the foundation of peaceful societies. An interesting theory …


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