A tightly scheduled film festival is admittedly the wrong circumstance under which a person should watch, let alone review, a film such as Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning masterpiece, The White Ribbon. Even under optimal conditions one viewing is probably insufficient. This is a film that demands your attention, and in the tradition of earlier work (i.e. Cache) it provides few easy answers as to what you have just witnessed. One must be part detective piecing together the information onscreen to bring into relief the finer details of its moral parable.
In an idyllic village in the north of Germany, a series of inexplicably violent acts stir the inhabitants’ puritan assumptions, forcing them to confront the ugly side of the human spirit. Weaving together a cross-section of the village, focusing especially on the education of the youth, The White Ribbon is Dickensian in scope, and at times confusing as one tries to keep a tally of all the characters involved. The story is told as prologue to the fascist uprising in Germany, the sins of the parents ushering in a new generation of frenzied idealists. The eponymous ‘white ribbon’ is a kind of scarlet letter used by one family in the film to single out impure behavior. Once marked with a white ribbon tied around their upper arms, the children are supposed to be reminded of their sin in the hopes of cleansing themselves, a clear analogue to the WWII Star of David badges this generation will later help enforce. This example barely scratches the surface of what struggles, familial, religious, even sexual come to a boil in this frank portrait of puritan values in corrosion.
With nods to the masters of cinema, Dreyer and Bergman, this deliberately paced black and white puritan drama plays off serene surfaces, the mostly static and balanced images giving the characters, and indeed we, the audience, a sense of false security in the face of seemingly indiscriminate acts of violence that break through the façade. On the surface there appears to be order, but in many of close-ups of characters throughout the film we see the fissures of doubt and fear, the faces made monumental in their grayscale terrains. In true Haneke fashion the violence comes unannounced in abrupt punctures to the story, assaultive by their lack of sentiment. One scene in particular that garnered its share of groans from the audience came without threat of physical violence but took the form of verbal abuse, so cruel in its intent that it stands out above all else in my mind.
The film, though in no rush to get anywhere, is never boring. We are allowed to linger on the behaviors of the villagers long enough to form our own judgments of them, and perhaps this is part of the point: to understand this kind of judgmental zeal from the inside out. The images sear into your mind by lack of urgency to get anywhere – the final fade to black is perhaps the slowest such fade I’ve ever seen, as if to say “keep looking, there is something you’ve missed”. The film grows in esteem the more I think about it, and will undoubtedly make my top ten by the end of the year.