The year is 1913, a small rural village in Germany called Eichwald. It’s a sleepy hamlet, all bright fields and clean orderly houses. Calling it pastoral would not be out of the question. An elderly narrator presents this town to us, looking back on his own time spent there as the young schoolteacher.
The White Ribbon opens with these scenes of country life, presented in pretty-as-you-please splendor in rich black and white, postcards of a time gone by. But just as soon as we are presented it, tragedy strikes. The town doctor, coming home from riding, is thrown from his horse by a wire strung across his path. It was no accident, but no culprit immediately comes forward.
We are quickly presented with a dizzying array of characters. There is the distant Baron and his flighty wife, their children tossed from nanny to nanny. The stern preacher and his long-suffering children, the victims of countless lectures on morality for every childhood infraction. The doctor’s assistant, an older woman who serves as the village midwife, a mentally disabled son the possible result of an illicit relationship between her and the doctor. And our narrator, the young schoolteacher, and his experience of falling for the Baron’s nanny Eva. That isn’t even everyone, but it’s enough of a pieces to get a picture.
The story unfolds at a slow pace befitting its subject matter. No suspects come forward about who caused the Doctor’s injury, though someone goes to great lengths to hide the wire after the accident. One of the son’s of the Baron turns up missing, only to appear tied up to a pole and beaten. Suspicion falls on a man who accused the Baron of causing his mother’s death, but he has an alibi and nothing can be proven. Other people disappear, maybe having fled the town or maybe worse; we’re never told explicitly one way or the other.
The White Ribbon is, like all films from director Michael Haneke, a film about cyclical violence. Funny Games was about violence in the media and how it crossed over into real life. The Piano Teacher was about mental and physical violence to the self and how that manifested in waves of destructive behavior. The White Ribbon explores the violence in communities, the hidden away evils of people trying to appear civil on the surface of deep suspicion and distrust. And, to a lesser extent, the home grown evil that can result from the oppressiveness of social structure, the lower class lashing out at the upper, the curious spirit chafing under the expectation of religious propriety.
And it all plays out against this particular backdrop like a Germanic fairy tale, the scenes of horror and bleakness mostly off screen, the monsters hiding in the deep forests and between the picturesque cottages. There is something deeply wrong here, something that goes to the very core of the human experience, but nobody seems able to speak its name or uncover it. Everyone is too busy perpetrating their own secret lives, covering up their own shame.
While there’s certainly a deep humanistic appeal to that kind of small home-spun drama, I can’t help but find the whole thing especially manipulative. Period pieces always struggle with this to varying degrees, because over time (especially nearly a century like in this case) values change and stories told that would be ‘of their time’ seem wildly inappropriate. There’s a particular instance of the preacher shaming his young teenage son when he discovers he’s been masturbating, telling him it will cause disease and death and then tying his arms to the bedposts at night, that reads as outright monsterous. I’m not saying it isn’t, but it’s meant to offend the modern sensibilities about such things.
Which is really what all of it boils down to, unfortunately. Haneke’s choice to film in black and white, to establish everything as perfectly era-specific as he can, becomes its own form of nihilistic nostalgia. Look at how remote everything is. Look at how awful these poor unenlightened people back in the day could be. It’s similar to the complaints I had about The Virgin Spring several weeks ago but here it’s even more egregious because the messaging is far less interesting. What we’re engaging in is little more than temporal voyeurism. Aren’t the antiquated people funny? Aren’t they so awful?
I can’t deny that there’s an artistry to all of this. It’s put together as a thriller without any scenes of overt danger, barely a sleuth (the one character who does bother to ask questions is blatantly the only ‘good guy’ and is incorruptible to the point of caricature compared to everyone else) and not a single clue. Yet for all that there is a tension that lies over the entire film, a growing sense of dread that even as this town’s pristine facade starts to crumble and the looming shadow of World War I encroaches on all of this, that there is some deep evil that the film never quite catches in the frame. The questions linger, even into the final shot, a pat answer we’re given impossibly the only answer.
The problem is that it never comes together into a film that pays off in a way that’s satisfying even thematically in analysis. Unless perhaps you have a thing for elaborate moral displays of how evil ‘the man’ is in its various forms. Because the film certainly provides that in spades. It just all renders down to something too simple and too easy for the themes that they started with. The answer to evil in human nature is not as simple as the film would have you believe, and it’s that abandonment of its core purpose that makes it ultimately not work for me.
The White Ribbon is heavy with atmosphere, rich with the kind of interweaving complexities of human narrative that garner a lot of awards and critical praise but can often be described as ‘plodding’ and ‘inert’. I don’t think the film is deserving of either extreme, admittedly, but I found the whole thing to be too on the nose for it’s presumptive subtlety, an intellectual exercise that ends up relying on gut reaction over analysis to get its points across. It is hardly a bad film, but it is a flawed one, more in execution than conception.