Michael Haneke is a filmmaker I know by reputation, but I never saw any of this films before "The White Ribbon." He's known for playing with the narrative form, using meta-narrative elements in both versions of "Funny Games" and premising "Cache" on the search for a menacing voyeur that may actually be film's audience. "The White Ribbon," though tackling less sensational material, presents its own unorthodox and fascinating enigmas.
Painters talk about the use of negative space, areas of the landscape defined by an absence of content. In essence, this is how the narrative of "White Ribbon" operates. It is a film that exists in reaction to events that are never addressed directly. The story seems to follow the formula of a mystery at first. Set in a small German village just before World War I, we learn in the opening scenes that someone set up a trip wire that fells the town doctor from his horse. The son of a rich man is severely beaten by persons unknown. In each case, groups of children were present just before or just after the misfortune. We never see the acts of aggression and violence directly, except for a few small, telling scenes that appear innocuous out of context. Rather, it's the reactions of the puzzled, frightened adults that feature most prominently.
Shot in simple black and white cinematography, with most of its scenes centered around long conversations and domestic situations, "The White Ribbon" feels like a much older film, perhaps something Ingmar Bergman might have made in one of his darker periods. The knowing, almost willful self-awareness of the narrative, however, is decidedly modern. The result is a film of wonderful menace, a picture of a pastoral, peaceful-looking little piece of the German countryside where unspoken oppressiveness and fear permeate everything. The characters seem agreeable and kindly at first, though the product of an older, more rigidly traditional era. The adults are mystified at the events that occur, yet also strangely accepting of their occurrence. The children seem almost monstrous when hints emerge that they may be responsible, until we begin to see their interactions with their parents, and the way the adults interact with each other.
The rich baron is landlord and employer to most of the village, and has near-tyrannical power over the laborers who work for him. The pastor's is strict and unyielding in his faith, and has perhaps unreasonable expectations. And the town doctor and the midwife seem perfectly respectable in public, but have disturbing secrets to hide. All of these characters have children, and all of them suffer misfortune through their children – some are victimized, and perhaps some are responsible for the victimization. Our central protagonist is the young schoolteacher who suspects something is terribly amiss with the children, but as an outsider he is continually thwarted and undermined by the village's authority figures.
No explanation is offered for the crimes that take place, though it's clear by the end of the picture who is responsible. Several key events are left unresolved, such as the sudden disappearance of the midwife, who may have learned the truth about what happened. There is no need to suss out the details, however, because they aren't the important part of the story. Haneke explains through the film's narrator that the events of the film are meant provide some insight into subsequent events, alluding to World War I. This suggests that "The White Ribbon" is an allegorical examination of the origins of the attitudes and cultural shifts that lead to the war. I think it works on a far broader level, a look at how moral and social values are transmitted from generation to generation, sometimes inadvertently.
The film's central image is the white ribbon tied around the arm of a child who is deemed to have misbehaved, supposedly a reminder of inner purity and the potential for salvation. Instead, it's a mark of something far more insidious being instilled by the well-meaning parent, an unspoken threat that is ultimately delivered back upon the originator. In that sense, it's a far more terrifying sight than any act of violence that Haneke could have shown us. And in the end, it seems that the film is not a mystery story at all – it's a horror picture.