In its presentation of a community hiding secrets, abuses and oppressions behind its respectable veneer, Michael Haneke’s new film takes it place alongside - and maybe draws some inspiration from? - movies as diverse as Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), and M. Night Shylaman’s The Village (2004). I love each of those films in different ways and I found myself thoroughly absorbed by The White Ribbon. “Love” isn’t an emotion that a Haneke film ever seems likely to inspire, but The White Ribbon is certainly a movie to admire and, as always with Haneke, one to debate and argue about.
Haneke’s setting is a village in Northern Germany in the years preceding WW1. Everyone here, from the local pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and doctor (Rainer Bock) to the Polish migrant labourers working on the baron's estate, appears to know (and accept) their place. But then the community is beset by a series of strange incidents: the doctor is injured after his horse falls over a tripwire; a woman dies in a sawmill accident, prompting an act of revenge; the baron's son is tortured. Who is to blame for all the crimes? The schoolteacher (whose retrospective narration structures the film) begins to believe that the village's children may be in some way responsible.
This being Haneke-land, the viewer will know better than to expect solutions to most of these conundrums. (How mainstream!) Instead, The White Ribbon operates on insinuation, suggestion - and, it must be said, a fair amount of dread. A biting critique of patriarchal power, it offers indelible images: a teenager tied to his bed to stop him masturbating; a stabbed bird; a girl explaining death to her younger brother; that same boy opening a door to find his sister and his father in mysterious collusion. The surprisingly sweet love story that Haneke smuggles into the movie never really pierces an oppressive atmosphere dominated by what one character rather baldly refers to as “malice, envy, apathy and brutality.”
As an allegory for the rise of National Socialism The White Ribbon strikes me as less satisfactory; the movie begins with the narrator’s statement that the violence in the village might “help to clarify things that happened later in this country” but ultimately ducks out of making that link more explicit. (Much as Haneke himself rather irritatingly seems to invite allegorical readings of his movies only to rebuff those journalists who dare to make such readings in interviews with him.) Nor can the general thesis of the movie - cruelty begets cruelty; victims become perpetrators - really be considered profound. Yet, scene by scene, The White Ribbon pulls you in. Haneke knows how to construct sequences for atmosphere, drama and (despite his reputation for coldness) emotional impact. There’s a great deal of manipulation in his approach, of course, and maybe some masochism on the part of the viewer in queuing up for one of his movies. But the seriousness of his work remains invigorating.