This film won both the Palme D’Or and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last year. Paul Martin endorsed it a couple of months ago, but since it’s approaching the end of its run in Australian cinemas, I thought one last recommendation wouldn’t hurt.
I find myself in complete agreement with Paul for a change. The White Ribbon turned out to be as grim and disturbing as I was led to expect, but an enriching experience all the same. Any film that can maintain its integrity in the face of remorseless global Hollywoodization deserves applause. People will call this depressing, but it’s the formulaic and predictable films that are depressing, not the ones that shine a torch into dark places in search of truth.
For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen it, the story is set in 1913, in a fictitious German farming village called Eichwald, which is afflicted by series of mysterious accidents and violent crimes. The events are reconstructed from hazy recollections after the passage of many decades by a now elderly man, who was the village schoolmaster at the time. What is established beyond doubt as his narrative unfolds, however, is that this community at the time he portarys it is almost devoid of warmth and kindness. Psychological cruelty seems to be the village’s basic currency. The children, who bear the brunt of this, and various amounts of corporal punishment and sexual abuse, are the focus of the story. Their teacher is one of the few adults who offers them some kindness, but he is largely a helpless bystander to their emotional rape.
The director Michael Haneke made the film in black and white both to evoke the period and in conscious imitation of Ingmar Bergman. There is a plenty of Hitchcock too in the suspenseful pacing and camerwork that infuses the ordinary with menace. The acting is magnificent from all quarters, not least the troubled and inscrutable children. Whether it’s the direction or the children themselves, it’s no surprise that both Sandra Hall and David Strratton were put in mind of The Village of the Damned. No doubt some people will be frustrated that the mysterious crimes are never explained. But The White Ribbon is not supposed to be an episode of Midsomer Murders. The elusiveness of the solution, parallels the elusiveness of the causes of Germany’s descent into inhumanity, both enigmas being tied to the problem of collective culpability. I’d be interested to know Bernhardt Schlink’s reaction to this film.
Our narrator suggests at the opening that the story of Eichwald may shed light on subsequent events in Germany. The question is, what exactly is the connection? It’s not hard to imagine that these brutalised children, with the finishing school of World War I still to come, could have grown up to be enthusiastic Nazis in their thirties and forties. The question is whether the film is suggesting that this particular culture of emotional privation and violence was something particular to that time and nation, or whether it was a seed that could have sprouted anywhere in Europe. Three of the village’s leading figures each bring a different strain of fin-de-siecle ideology to bear on the village culture: the baron represents complacent paternalism and the callous wielding of power; the pastor subordination to authority in the name of duty and purity; and the doctor a weary nihilism that has no use for compassion.
These ingredients were obviously present in Italy too, and Spain — the pastor’s approach to family life brings to mind nothing so much as The House of Bernarda Alba, where Catholic fantasies of spiritual cleanliness wrought as much evil as Eichwald’s Calvinism. Did Germany possess them in a uniquely toxic combination? Haneke seems to be saying yes, though I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a creative speculation or his take on an established historical hypothesis. In any case it’s interesting that, as far as I noticed, the film made no reference to Jews whatsover, forgoing any suggestion of ancient animosities, and keeping the lens squarely on the inherent pathologies at the root of German culture itself.