By Don Simpson | February 18, 2010
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar
Welcome to the cold and grey environs of the Protestant north-German village of Eichwald during the fall harvest of 1913. Not long before the outbreak of World War I, Eichwald is still functioning as a semi-feudal society. The lord of the manor – the baron (Ulrich Tukur) – possesses a majority of the wealth and workforce of the village; the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) and the doctor (Rainer Bock) also wield some power due to their societal status. The three men enjoy absolute moral authority over the women, children and peasants of Eichwald.
The baron treats his workers like slaves, caring little of their health and safety – one woman falls to her death through rotten floorboards of the baron’s sawmill, yet no one seems to care but her children. The baron has a strained relationship with his wife (Ursina Lardi), who seems petrified to remain in Eichwald – thus she spends a majority of the film off-screen with their son Sigmund (Fion Mutert) in the warm and safe seclusion of the Mediterranean coast.
The uber-puritanical pastor causes his pubescent children to have guilty consciences over trivial offences – when his son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) confesses to losing sleep due to masturbation the pastor has Martin’s hands tied to his bed frame to alleviate the nighttime temptation of his wayward hands. Additionally, Martin and his sister Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) are forced to don white ribbons of purity to remind them of the path of righteousness from which both perpetually stray.
The doctor seems on the surface to be a good person – treating the village children in a kindly way. That is until we discover that he enjoys humiliating and taking sexual advantage of his housekeeper (Susanne Lothar) and molesting his young daughter Anna (Roxane Duran).
As the baron, pastor and doctor attempt to retain their tyrannical brand of moral sanctity within their community, mysterious and violent events occur in Eichwald: a trip wire is stretched between two trees causing the doctor to fall from his horse; the baron’s son is abducted; a window is purposefully opened to expose a newborn baby to the intense winter cold; the handicapped son of the midwife is brutally attacked; the pastor’s canary is cruelly killed. The purpose and perpetrator(s) of these seemingly random acts is unknown. Are these acts of unbridled retaliatory malice? Or merely signs to prompt societal change? Or purely a means to ignite fear within the village?
One might say there is a terrorist afoot in Eichwald – and chances are the terrorist is a direct result of the tyranny and fundamentalism inherent within Eichwald’s social structure. The strict class structure of the feudal society traps the village’s inhabitants in their roles thus propagating greed, jealousy, animosity and suspicion amongst neighbors; while the unforgiving nature of the Protestant religion – the sole religion of the village – promotes guilt, fear and hatred.
Then, think of the children – with their perfect Aryan appearance – growing up in such a restricted, unforgiving and negative atmosphere. These children are the very same people for whom Hitler will be their savior in 20 years. The White Ribbon thoughtfully contemplates how German villages such as Eichwald literally bred Nazis; just as fundamentalist (and other close-minded) societies of today breed fear, hatred and terrorism.
The White Ribbon is narrated by the village’s school teacher (Ernst Jacobi) as he contemplates the facts and fictions of his memory in an absurd attempt to piece this oblique and dire puzzle together from some point in the distant future (onscreen, the school teacher is played by Christian Friedel). Because the story is being told from school teacher’s perspective, it is somewhat suspect that he is privy to the solitary heartwarming and uplifting subplot of The White Ribbon – as he relentlessly courts the lovely and innocent Eva (Leonie Benesch).
Judging by the sparse opening title sequence, black and white cinematography, and simplistic editing and lighting design, this is by no means a modern piece of filmmaking by Michael Haneke (one might say that The White Ribbon is the antithesis of his oeuvre to date) – The White Ribbon possesses the finely-aged quality of northern European films from the 1930s and 1940s. The films of Robert Bresson – a director whom Haneke has often sited as an influence – would be a good reference point for The White Ribbon.