Michael Haneke explores Germany's tumultuous 20th century through life in one small hamlet
A VILLAGE DOCTOR discharges his matronly lover-qua-vessel for sexual gratification with an icy, "You disgust me," adding with an indeed disgusted-sounding, "My God, why don't you just die?" In this small German village just before the dawn of World War I, he is one of the town's few aristocrats and she, the village midwife and mother of a retarded child, a tool--a step not above, but to the side of being a piece of property. Something that can be discharged and stomped at will. And so she is.
It is one of many scenes of subdued horror that string together The White Ribbon, Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke's broad consideration of a community choking on itself. If that sounds nebulous, it's because the movie is. You're a witness to events--a doctor is sabotaged, a child is beaten and left tied to a tree, a barn burns, the pastor's pet bird is murdered--and you're given only the suggestion of what they mean. All of it is relayed many years after the events through a narrator, the gentle and thoughtful schoolteacher, name unknown.
He does impart something important in the movie's opening credits, a signpost as to how you might interpret what follows: "I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know through hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. They could clarify some things that happened in this country." And what happened was World War I, a horrific, futile war waged on nationalism and hubris, and which left Germany decimated. It also left the door open to fascism--deposing the aristocracy, ending liberal capitalism--and all of fascism's eventual, and far less subdued, horrors.
So The White Ribbon could offer a view of Germany in miniature in its small village, which Haneke renders in black and white. Some of the town's events, perhaps perpetuated by the town's children, are overt attacks on the wealthy estate, which essentially runs the town and keeps its inhabitants in economic bondage. Meanwhile, some attacks are directed at the weak and pathetic--the midwife's retarded son, for example. If fascism is the tyranny of the center, then White Ribbon delivers an ultrasound of fascism in the womb. In a chilling foreshadowing of a certain very real figure/force of evil, the narrator says, "And the character behind these mysterious deeds, awakened the age-old mistrust of the farmers."
The movie is told with the precision and efficiency of a mathematical formula. This is Haneke's style: not a frame wasted, a cinematic talent that can make allusion more precise than an actual unveiling. A muffled scream and a shot of a closed door conveys a child's beating; buzzing flies are all you need of a corpse; a shared look says everything that needs to be known of a plan. The result is a movie gripping from start to finish without too terribly much happening onscreen. In other words, White Ribbon could also be taken as boring: It takes effort. Funny Games it is not.
Haneke is frequently accused of being cynical in excess, even mean and misanthropic. And the beating of a mentally handicapped child, a father sexually abusing his daughter, and various other things here won't quiet his critics. But the touches of humanity and empathy that appear through Ribbon's cracks tell another, more hopeful story: An older sister explains death to a wide-eyed and fearful little brother with sweetness and care, the awkward schoolteacher courts the estate's shy and kind nanny, a young boy presents his father with a wounded bird, hoping to take it in. It is not with hate or loathing that Haneke views his world, it is empathy and fear.
White Ribbon closes, as many of Haneke's movies do, with an ambiguous panorama. Here it is the village amassed in a church. Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been shot, and Germany is entering the war. Nothing is resolved; nothing has ended. "I never saw any of the other villagers again," the narrator explains. There is no need to continue. You know what happens next: Germany plummets into war and, eventually, the blackest years of modern history. Horrors once subdued become all-consuming. ?