"I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true," the village school-teacher says in his deadpan voice. "Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure, and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country." We are in the village of Eichwald in Protestant northern Germany. It is1913, the eve of World War I. Immediately, the opening prelude warns us of the violence that is about to unfold. And it sets up a key reading for the rest of the film which becomes, arguably, a vision of how everyday life is infused with the violence that would later unfold on an international scale.
The White Ribbon is the story of the village's children and their families: the baron, the steward, the pastor, the doctor, the midwife, the tenant farmers. Strange accidents occur and gradually we begin to wonder if the accidents are linked. Soon, the accidents aren't accidents anymore, but sadistic punishment rituals. Who or what is behind it all is unclear.
The film opens with the village doctor returning from a visit to the Baron (the feudal head of the town). The doctor's horse trips over a slender wire placed at the gate of his yard. Who has done this is a mystery. The wire disappears after the incident, before the police can come to investigate, the doctor is himself rushed off-stage, taken, we are told, to a district hospital 30 miles away.
A few days later, a woman working on the Baron's estate dies. She falls through the rotten planks of a barn floor. It is unclear what the woman was doing in the barn; she had reportedly been ordered to go there by an unnamed superior. The woman’s son blames the Baron and, when the villagers are distracted at a feast held to celebrate the harvest, he slashes the Baron’s cabbage crop. Hours later, the Baron’s son is found beaten and tied upside down in the barn. The incidents of violence, which are largely never observed by Haneke's camera, increase in intensity. Children whisper, adults conspire, but no one openly comes forward with a solution. There are attempts to investigate; but they run into difficulties.
In between all of this are glimpses of village life, including the pastor’s brutal caning of his children over a minor incident; a woman’s chagrin at a musician who can’t keep up; and a little boy’s questioning of his nanny about death, in the course of which he learns that his mother, supposedly away on a long trip, is really dead. We discover that the village doctor and the midwife have been having an affair, that the relationship between the Baron and his wife is on the verge of collapse and that the relationships between the children in the village are not what they seem. These glimpses of the private domestic lives of the villagers give us more and more possible suspects for the violent incidents. Even the children come increasingly under a cloud of suspicion, leaving The White Ribbon to appear like an echo of The Lord of the Flies.
The similarities between both films do not end there. Like The Lord of the Flies, The White Ribbon is filmed in black and white. In Haneke's hands, the results are sublime. The camera is never self-conscious, but always perfectly on form. The lighting plays with the very idea of black and white, with cinematographer Christian Berger making full use of the dramatic black costumes worn by the women and children. Where land and soil is supposed to appear dark and the sky light, Berger finds lightness in the darkness and darkness in the light; turning soil a sickening white, and casting the sky in deep greys. The effect is eerie; there are unforgettable shots and a clear sense that Haneke (who story-boards his films) is painting masterful paintings with his camera.
"The use of black and white is also tied to this element of distance," Haneke said in an interview. "The reason is that historical films always come with a claim of false naturalism – 'that’s how things specifically were.' Of course, they aren’t because films are always artifacts, not a reconstruction of reality." But the black and white does more than put distance; it alienates, intensifies, complicates and creates a sense of a nascent world not yet fully realised; a world that is just about to change forever, to be torn to the seems by two world wars and by unspeakable catastrophes.
The violence of the Holocaust is clearly the ghost lurking behind the layers of this film. Like Haneke's Cache, whose buried subject is the Algerian massacre in Paris of 1961, The White Ribbon invites us to compare domestic incidents with events on a larger scale. The opening statement of the schoolteacher, who warns that the incidents, "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country" invites us to read the film as an examination of the latent elements of German society that unfolded into the Holocaust, the Jewish Ghettos, Hilter.
But this is not, in the end, a satisfying approach. For Haneke's film, which is a masterpiece of world cinema, is nowhere as ambitious as it leads us to believe. There is no real analysis of how all that unfolds are causally related with later international events. Indeed, such an analysis would be an exercise bound to fail given its sheer simplistic nature. What we have before us is a document; an odd one at that too. It is--in Haneke's own terms--an artefact that raises issues it can never hope to resolve.
"I certainly don’t offer solutions, that’s not my job," Haneke tells us. "The issue in the film is education, which is an eternal problem that you simply can’t get rid of – it’s a basic human problem. If you could solve it we’d have a different society. It’s not ideal now, but it certainly wasn’t ideal back then either."
"When you read criticism about my films, you get the impression that they’re all about themes, problems or ideas. However, those are things that develop out of characters, out of images and out of other things and these more abstract things develop while you are working on the material. They develop out of it; it’s not a theoretical exercise from the outset."
What The White Ribbon grows into is a stunning examination of the violence of an industrial society, ordered by discipline and latent forms of repression. Characters appear hostage to desires, emotions and lies; they are tied down by dreams of purification and the abhorrence of the imperfect--all of which is, indeed, linked to fascism but also to certain impulses that exist within modern society, generally. It is striking that the incidents of violence begin only when the doctor is away from the town. For the doctor, more so than the wealthy Baron and the overzealous pastor, commands the obedience and respect of the village society more firmly than any other; he is a symbolic leader who--with his apparent command of life and death--holds the village together. His removal from the village, in a sense, appears to allow a lapse. His return, when he re-appears half-way through the film still nursing his wounds, is not an effective salve to what has already been freed.