Like other Michael Haneke films I’ve seen, this beautifully shot black-and-white movie about a small German village just before the breakout of World War I is unsettling, mysterious, and doesn’t offer any easy answers.
The story is told in voiceover by an old man who, in his youth, was the local schoolteacher. Outwardly, all is well in this placid corner of the country, with its long-established order where everyone – the baron who owns the land, the farmers, the pastor and the doctor, their wives and children – has their assigned roles to play. But there is some rot, some wrongness at the core of the village. Its first glimpse is an early incident with the doctor who, while riding out one morning, falls from his horse after it stumbles on a trip wire strung between two trees. It was clearly put there by someone with a malicious intent, but by who and why?
More incidents happen: the baron’s young son is abducted and beaten, a barn is set on fire. Confusingly, alongside these mysterious crimes there are others where the perpetrator and their motives are out in the open. Having seen a Haneke film before, I knew better than to expect a simple whodunnit with a neat resolution, though the movie strongly suggests that at least some of the acts were committed by the suffering and weak who take out their suffering on those more vulnerable than themselves.
Once the film offers a window into the private lives of the villagers, particularly its most powerful and influential figures, it reveals a hidden world of cruelty, repression and spite. The pastor, in particular, is a severe disciplinarian who takes the “spare the rod and spoil the child” proverb very seriously, and forces his errant children to wear a white ribbon, a symbol of purity, until they are sufficiently “cleansed”. And yet this authoritarian, patriarchal order of things was a norm at the time, so why is it that this particular village is plagued by these unexplained acts? Hearing the narrator say at the start of the film that the story he’s about to tell could explain many things about his country, it’s impossible to forget that the young children in the film will grow up to be the generation that sees the rise of Nazism. But of course the film is far too ambiguous to back up its narrator and make any clear-cut statements.
Though long and slow-paced, The White Ribbon is one of those immersive movies where I was reluctant to interrupt it for anything lest the spell was broken. The film’s recreation of the period and the precise, chilly beauty of its visuals is mesmerising. It’s impossible to imagine it in colour and it looks like an old photograph come to life, with its striking images of girls and women in their long-sleeved dresses. With all the grim and disquieting things going on everywhere, the movie’s biggest surprise is the lighthearted subplot about the sweet and gentle courtship between the schoolteacher and a young girl working in the village (though I could never quite relax since I fully expected it to get twisted at some point).