Haneke breathes an unholy life into the generation of children who would grow up to become the obedient soldiers and members of the Nazi party, indirectly asking: What was the genesis of, and who is accountable for, this morally corrupt generation?
The curtain opens to silence, and a screen of black fog slowly dissolves into a long view of a colorless, rural village. Within the first few seconds of his new film, The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke has saturated a world with a sense of unseen yet palpable menace. As the village materializes out of darkness, the cinematographer captures the daylight in black and white, like a forgotten memory briefly retrieved from someone’s mind. Then, a narrator’s voice — clearly that of an old man burdened with a quaver — sets the tone for the story he is about to tell us. His voice is hushed and grave, compelling us to listen; we can hear that he’s been haunted for a lifetime.
Set in Northern Germany just prior to World War I, this unnamed village has retained its feudal caste system. The landowning baron and baroness employ half of the peasant farming population, while the ascetic pastor preaches to a crowded and deferential congregation. (Not since Bishop Vergérus, from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, have I seen a religious figure this terrifying and severe.) Fifteen minutes pass, then thirty, before we learn who the narrator is, the school teacher, and that he’s a central witness to the recounted events. By delaying the introduction — a way of withholding information from the audience — Haneke immediately elevates the level of tension in an otherwise ordinary setting.
In the first few minutes we are, at once, located in a specific time and place, yet also suffer from a profound sense of dislocation. The school teacher informs us that a series of strange accidents once afflicted the village. We start to see these events as he describes them: A horse and rider stride along a country road, through tall fields of billowing grain. Suddenly, the horse stumbles forward, and his mount is thrown to the earth. The camera is placed directly in front of them so that the viewers vicariously feel the shock of flesh as it slams hard to the ground. During the subsequent investigation, a nearly invisible wire is found, tied between two trees. Who would want to inflict such pain upon, or even murder, the rider, the village doctor?
With this question, the real narrative begins. It is through the doctor’s fall that we are introduced to his children and neighbors, and the rest of the community. While the doctor is recovering in hospital, we find his two children weeping on the staircase. Anna is failing in her attempt to console her younger brother, Rudi, when she is interrupted from her ministrations by the sound of rocks tapping on window panes. A group of school children, verging on, or raging toward, adolescence, stares up at her as she opens the window.
In this and in every scene that follows, Haneke, like a sorcerer of some dark art, is able to sustain the threatening sensation of something about to break. His power comes from the execution of the shot, as the camera keeps pace with Anna’s slow crossing of the room, coupled with the menacing sound of rock on glass. This power to command our attention also stems from his direction of the actors, and their unrivaled ability to disappear inside this recreation of the past, an other world. With one medium close-up shot of the children standing outside the doctor’s window, we instantly intuit that Klara, the pastor’s daughter, is the ringleader. Standing at the head of the pack, her eyes generate an unforgettable coldness.
Are these children responsible for the doctor’s horse riding accident, for the death of a farmer’s wife, for a granary fire, for the kidnap and torture of the baron’s son, for the atmosphere thickening with animosity and mistrust? The terrible beauty of The White Ribbon recalls Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist, in which a budding young fascist hunts and torments the neighborhood animals: “Marcello, at that time, was remorselessly, shamelessly cruel, that was perfectly natural, for it was from cruelty that he derived the only pleasures that did not seem to him insipid, and this cruelty was still childish enough to arouse no suspicions either in himself or in others.” It is this preconscious phase for both the villagers, the parents and elders, and the children themselves, that leaves the community in a perpetual state of unknowingness. They are quite literally unable to articulate the thought, or give voice to the idea, that their own progeny could be capable of causing such damage.
How could this village, a microcosm of the society at large, tolerate a series of crimes, of vile, inhumane acts perpetrated against their very own friends and neighbors? Without once alluding to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the beginning of the Third Reich in 1933, The White Ribbon breathes an unholy life into the generation of children who would grow up to become the obedient soldiers and members of the Nazi party. Haneke indirectly asks: What was the genesis of, and who is accountable for, this morally corrupt generation?
Without offering an explicit answer (the children are never found guilty of, nor do we see anyone committing the crimes), Haneke crafts the story like a fable or a grim parable, in which the sole lesson a child can learn is that everyone dies. As subtle and obvious as the missive in Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” the director does, however, offer the viewer a clue: the title of the movie itself. Early in the film, the pastor forces two of his children (including Klara), to wear a white ribbon — a symbol of purity — as a punitive measure for disobeying his authority. Two decades later, many of these same children would be wearing black ribbons around their arms. With one simple inversion, Haneke foreshadows the future of German aggression, and the consequences of its violent immolation.