By A.O. Scott/The New York Times
The last shot of Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” is haunting not because it sums up the unnerving, at times horrifying series of events that have filled up the previous 2 hours 25 minutes, but rather because it seems to unfold as if none of them have taken place. Taken alone, the film’s final image might conjure a mood of gentle, pastoral nostalgia. Here, in glowing, understated black and white, we glimpse part of a world that used to be. The camera sits inside an austerely beautiful village church that is illuminated by winter morning sunlight, its pews filling with congregants whose dark clothes and weathered faces bespeak hardy old virtues of work, faith and family.
By now we know otherwise. The only comfort offered by “The White Ribbon,” a chronicle of small-town German life on the eve of World War I, is that the social order it depicts has vanished from the earth. Good riddance to the good old days! But at the same time, Mr. Haneke may intend that sense of distance, of pastness, to be illusory, so that the strangeness of these people and their doings is shadowed by an uncomfortable sense of recognition. We fool ourselves if we think bygones are bygones. We’re on a guilt trip down memory lane. And though the road twists and turns and reveals some pretty scenery, in the end we arrive in a familiar place, to be lectured and scolded by a filmmaker whose rich craft disguises the poverty of his ideas.
Our guide is the village schoolteacher, played on screen in his relative youth (by Christian Friedel) as an earnest, chubby-faced bumbler and in voice-over narration (by Ernst Jacobi) as a ruminative old man. This teacher, who like most of the adult characters in the film is not referred to by name, is by far the most benign — if also the most ineffectual — authority figure in a place that turns out to be a veritable theme park of patriarchal abuses.
The wholesome facade of this hamlet, with its tidy brick houses and wind-swept wheat fields, where residents tip their hats and address one another with unfailing formality, masks a carnival of cruelty. Children are beaten and molested. Women are silenced and humiliated. Workplace accidents claim the lives of innocent farmwives. Horses and house pets are maimed, cabbages are wantonly decapitated and the only force more fearsome than the brutality of fathers is the innocence of children.
Mr. Haneke, born in 1942 and perhaps the most lauded living European filmmaker with a surname other than Dardenne, traffics in shock and terror, but in a cerebral, systematic way. His films rarely foreshadow their jolts or speed up their plots to generate suspense, but rather proceed, with almost meditative calm, to weave a cocoon of dread around intimations of mystery and implications of violence.
“The White Ribbon,” which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and the top European Film Award this year, is a rare foray out of the clamor and anomie of modern urban Europe that is Mr. Haneke’s favored setting. The film also marks his return to his native German after a decade of mainly French-language films. In it, he uses the sharp elegance of Christian Berger’s monochrome cinematography (achieved by shooting in color, then draining it away), the grammatical precision of old-fashioned speech and the pageantry of period drama to lull and also to inflame the audience’s expectations. The effect is something like a ghost story, the horror of which is at once elusive and pervasive. What is happening here? Why is it happening?
The answer to the first question: a lot of weird stuff. The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is injured when his horse trips over a wire strung across his gate, apparently for just that sinister purpose. That apparently inexplicable crime is followed by others, including the abduction and beating of one small child and the near blinding of another. There are whispers and denunciations, and visits from the police, but no solutions are forthcoming.
Instead, as suspicions multiply, we are led on a tour of several households, which taken together offer a sociological composite portrait of guilt and repression. The schoolteacher, whose courtship of a milky-fresh young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch) provides hints of tender comedy, traffics mainly in rumors and surmises while the camera assumes a position of omniscience. (Unless, that is, it is the vehicle for the narrator’s retroactive speculation or self-protecting deceit, which is not unthinkable.)
In due course we enter the homes of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the town’s principal employer and landowner; the doctor, a widower with two children and an interesting relationship with the midwife (Susanne Lothar); the steward (Josef Bierbichler); a tenant farmer (Branko Samarovski); and, perhaps most important, the pastor (Burghart Klaussner).
Each of these men, with the partial exception of the poor farmer, represents a different face of power. And each one, accordingly, manifests his own special brand of awfulness, mistreating those close to him with methods appropriate to his station. The Baron is cold and sarcastic with his wife (Ursina Lardi). The steward beats his children in a state of volcanic rage, while the pastor does the same in a mood of pious sorrow.
Monstrous as these daddies are, their children may be worse. A gaggle of towheaded darlings walks through the film, their mild smiles so sinister that they might have wandered in from the 1960 British science-fiction horror chestnut “Village of the Damned.” Anyone who has seen Mr. Haneke’s “Cache” or his twin versions of “Funny Games” will be aware that he does not believe in the blamelessness of youth. Quite the contrary: children, in his world, carry the sins of their parents in concentrated, highly toxic form, and are also capable of a pure, motiveless, experimental evil.
What will become of these particular blond children, who are either demons or victims, driven to mischief by severe paternal discipline or so intrinsically bad that no punishment could suffice? Do the math: it’s 1914. In 20 or 30 years, what do you suppose these children will be up to? Our narrator, well into old age, tells us that he is revisiting the strange events in the village to “clarify things that happened in our country” afterward.
But “The White Ribbon” does the opposite, mystifying the historical phenomenon it purports to investigate. Forget about Weimar inflation and the Treaty of Versailles and whatever else you may have learned in school: Nazism was caused by child abuse. Or maybe by the intrinsic sinfulness of human beings. “The White Ribbon” is a whodunit that offers a philosophically and aesthetically unsatisfying answer: everyone. Which is also to say: no one.
The teacher may be Mr. Haneke’s obvious surrogate: an intellectual whose pursuit of the truth is enabled by his inability to change anything. But really the filmmaker is closer to the pastor, his chosen emblem of blindness and hypocrisy. After caning his children for a minor infraction, the pastor makes his oldest son (Leonard Proxauf) and daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) wear white ribbons, which serve both as emblems of shame and reminders of the purity of soul they are in danger of sacrificing. “The White Ribbon” is offered to its grateful, masochistic audience in a similarly punitive and yet oddly forgiving spirit, as a reminder of just how awful we are and how much worse we used to be.
“The White Ribbon” is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Sex, violence, repression.
The White Ribbon
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Michael Haneke; director of photography, Christian Berger; edited by Monika Willi; produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz and Andrea Occhipinti; released by Sony Pictures Classics. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Ulrich Tukur (the Baron), Susanne Lothar (the Midwife), Christian Friedel (the Schoolteacher), Burghart Klaussner (the Pastor), Leonie Benesch (Eva), Josef Bierbichler (the Steward), Rainer Bock (the Doctor), Ernst Jacobi (the Narrator), Ursina Lardi (Marie-Louise, the Baroness), Fion Mutert (Sigmund), Branko Samarovski (the Farmer), Leonard Proxauf (Martin),Maria- Victoria Dragus (Klara) and Michael Kranz (the Tutor).
By Betsy Sharkey/Los Angeles Times
Set in an ordinary German village on the eve of World War I, the film looks at the children who would survive that war and grow into the generation that would bend to Hitler's sway. Shot in black and white, which serves as both a statement and a style, Germany's foreign language Oscar entry has rightfully been collecting critical acclaim since it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Here the dramatic interplay of innocence, evil and human behavior so often on Haneke's radar has been joined by themes of guilt and responsibility. He's woven all this into a mysterious, often eerie parable that attempts to explain the seeds of Nazism. That the setting is a seemingly idyllic farming community is not accidental.
But accidents are very much at the heart of "The White Ribbon." As the narrator of this tale explains as the film begins, there were a series of strange events years ago in his village that "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country."
Ernst Jacobi, our narrator here, affects a grandfatherly, almost apologetic tone that could lead you to believe that he will fill in all the missing pieces for us. Don't be fooled. This is a film that requires concentration -- a don't blink, don't breathe approach will serve the viewer well.
The world we're dropped into by cinematographer Christian Berger, whose work with Haneke includes two of the director's better known films, "Caché" and "The Piano Teacher," is both beautiful and harsh. The farmland with its rolling fields of wheat stands in lush contrast to the families in the region, hard folk tied to a rigid Protestant vision of morality where pleasures are few, forgiveness is slow in coming and retribution rules the day.
"The White Ribbon" is told from the point of view of the village schoolteacher, with Christian Friedel playing him as a young man on-screen and Jacobi's voice his latter-day, much wiser and reflective self. The story is framed by the family life of all those who make up the region, a perfect socio-economic mix of the Baron, the Pastor, the Steward, the Doctor, the Farmer and the Schoolteacher.
It all begins when the village doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown after his horse runs into a trip wire set on the road to his home. After school that day, the village children gather at the doctor's house. When someone spots them outside, innocent faces smile and explain that they're just there to see after their classmate Anna (Roxane Duran), the doctor's teenage daughter.
But their politeness is eerie; the way they move through the village in groups suddenly seems sinister. Haneke is just starting to sow the seeds of mistrust, and like any good provocateur, he soon has us suspecting everyone in town of secret schemes and dark deeds.
Next, the farmer's wife is killed, the Baron's son is beaten, an infant catches a worrisome fever, and on it goes. There are no suspects and there are few clues, though the governing principle seems to be punishment.
While the accidents drive the action, they are also there to give context to the most significant question posed by "The White Ribbon": What is it about someone's childhood that creates the adults they become? Haneke, who wrote the screenplay with veteran writer Jean-Claude Carrière ("Cyrano de Bergerac," "Valmont") consulting, puts the responsibility on both parents and society as a whole, rather than any genetic predisposition, which leads you back to the question of who is minding the children.
In "White Ribbon," Haneke is, and it is to the children he always returns -- building scenes in such a way that you wonder are they responsible? Is it all or just a few? Planned or happenstance? And hovering over it all -- if it is the children, then why?
Before we can condemn them, the director begins opening the doors to their homes and the texture of their lives: the indifference in one household, the denial in another; for others, it's neglect, or brutality. Harshness and humiliation seem the guiding principals of parenting here.
The schoolteacher, an excellent Friedel, represents kindness in this unkind land, thinking the best of everyone until he no longer can. His courtship of another gentle soul, Eva (Leonie Benesch), a nanny in the Baron's employ, also provides needed relief from the film's somewhat unrelenting grimness. Meanwhile, the overbearing Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) represents the church's role in creating an environment of fear and retribution.
The pastor's ritualistic and sadistic punishment of his teenagers -- Klara and Martin, very powerfully played by Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf -- gives the film its name: the white ribbon they must wear to remind them that purity is their goal and that thus far they've failed. Of course, there are beatings, and self-righteous tirades too. Their crime? They were late for dinner.
That the story plays out in black and white makes things easier in a way -- the images have the beauty of old photos. That look, coupled with the faces (the director reportedly saw more than 7,000 children to try to capture the era), gives the film the feel of an artifact, a historical document.
History hovers over "White Ribbon" with the force of impending doom. These children will inherit this world of sin and sorrow, and the consequences will be catastrophic. Whatever responsibility we might feel for future generations after seeing a cautionary tale like this one, well that's just one of the questions Haneke leaves us to figure out.
By J. Hoberman/Village Voice
The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke's first German-language film since the original Funny Games (1997) and, addressing what used to be called "the German problem" while dodging the filmmaker's own likeability issues, it's his best ever.
A period piece set on the eve of World War I in an echt Protestant, still-feudal village somewhere in the uptight depths of Northern Germany, The White Ribbon—which won a deserved Palme d'Or at last May's Cannes-fest of Cruelty—is as cold and creepy and secretly cheesy as any of Haneke's earlier films, if not quite as lofty. Instead of sermonizing, Haneke sets himself to honest craftsmanship. Detailed yet oblique, leisurely but compelling, perfectly cast and irreproachably acted, the movie has a seductively novelistic texture complete with a less-than-omniscient narrator hinting at a weighty historical thesis: It's Village of the Damned as re-imagined by Thomas Mann after studying August Sander's photographs of German types while perusing Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism.
The White Ribbon's original title identifies the movie as "A German Children's Story" and, recounted by the village schoolteacher 40 or 50 years later, this dark fable has a mock legendary aspect. The tale may not reflect "the truth in every detail," the elderly teacher-narrator announces. Much is known only by hearsay and "a lot of it remains obscure to me even today." Many questions are unanswerable, he admits, and yet "the strange events that occurred in our village . . . may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country." No need to speculate on what those goings-on might be.
The first strange event occurs seconds into the action, when the irascible village doctor is thrown by his horse, having tripped on a mysterious wire strung across his habitual path. Thereafter, this quiet town, comfortably nestled into its peaceful landscape yet seething with hidden resentments, is subjected to an escalating series of inexplicable accidents and unsolved incidents of terror, most of which are discussed after the fact, but never shown. Some are precipitated by the angry son of a tenant farmer after his mother is fatally injured in a barn collapse while working for the local baron; other events, foretold by dreams and portents, appear connected to a pack of angelic-looking little towheads, led by the pastor's eldest daughter and seemingly possessed of a group mind. In the meantime, the narrator—or, rather, his youthful avatar—shyly woos the equally bashful nanny who watches over the baron's children.
This circumspect courtship may be the one purely innocent activity in a movie unfolding beneath a rubric of innocent purity. Nothing is ever truly revealed, least of all who commissioned the most heinous crimes. With one exception, the only wrongs shown onscreen are committed against the village children—who are regularly subjected to corporal punishment, among other abuses. (There is to be no laffing at these funny games!) In a scene that could have been lifted straight from Reich's Mass Psychology, the implacable pastor, a poster boy for vindictive divinity, ties his eldest son's hands to prevent even the possibility of nocturnal masturbation; the widowed doctor meanwhile engages in unmentionable practices with his 14-year-old daughter. (Notable for its obdurate, unsmiling, and down-right mean-spirited fathers, the town is populated by case studies from The Authoritarian Personality; it might be re-christened Patriarchalischenplatz or just plain Schweinhundtstadt.)
In a sense, Haneke is strictly bound by his own white ribbon. Although based on an original screenplay, the movie strongly resembles his adaptations of Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth. The odd quality of seeming to faithfully follow an acknowledged literary classic is heightened by Haneke's deliberate, almost parodic, classical filmmaking. The camera is quiet; the compositions are studied and seldom in close-up. The black-and-white images are etched on the screen with precise hyperreal clarity. (Christian Berger's impeccable cinematography was cited as the year's best by the New York Film Critics Circle.) Only rarely is the ominous stillness disturbed, as with the sudden eruption of deftly choreographed collective activity that is the town's harvest festival and, not coincidentally, leads to the single instance of revolt against Herr Baron.
History has the same brusque impact. Just as the baroness prepares to leave her unpleasant husband, citing not only his own insensitivity but the intolerable "malice, envy, apathy, [and] brutality" of his town, the steward rushes in with news that Archduke Ferdinand of Austria has been assassinated in Sarajevo. End of story, almost. All police investigations are halted; everything is subsumed by the expectation of war, if not the 30-year nightmare about to convulse Europe. The final shot finds the townspeople gathered in church, perhaps for the last time. In any case, the narrator maintains that he never saw any of them again.
No one's idea of a cinematic cuddle-bunny, Haneke is as much strategist as filmmaker and more pedagogue than visionary. The White Ribbon is certainly the most beautiful movie he has made—a sort of triumphantly willed Meisterwerk. His use of narrative uncertainty, resembling those in the unsolved mystery at the heart of Caché, may be standard-issue, but there's no denying The White Ribbon's seriousness and unity. The severe, withholding culture that Haneke critiques is precisely mirrored by his methods. The White Ribbon keeps the viewer in a state of perpetual uncertainty, but it's more than clear how things will end.
J. Hoberman will be on leave for the next two months