Haneke Tears a Village Apart in "The White Ribbon"
By Ethan Gates '12, A&L Section Editor
Once upon a time, there was a small, cozy German village, and the people in this village had no idea that very soon, in a faraway land, an Austrian nobleman would be murdered, plunging the world around them into a terrible war. No, at this moment, the townspeople were far more concerned with a simpler, if not less violent, matter: a nearly invisible wire had tripped the horse of the local doctor, who was severely injured in the fall. Why was the wire there? Had someone placed it explicitly for malevolent purposes? The wire itself vanished as mysteriously as it appeared, and the police could find no clues to these questions.

Still, the townspeople tried to continue on with their normal lives, preparing for the fall harvest. But confusing, horrible things kept happening: a farmer’s wife fell through rotten floorboards at the sawmill and died; the son of the local baron disappeared and was only found after having been bound and tortured; a barn on the manor estate inexplicably caught fire. The villagers eyed each other with suspicion, but no accusations were ever made. It was too hard to believe that one of them could commit such acts; the village seemed to be under the spell of some evil, supernatural force.

This is the tale presented to the audience by the town’s school teacher, narrating events from years later in Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated drama “The White Ribbon.” Bleak and relentless, the film contains very few images that are explicitly disturbing. Instead, it cultivates an eerie and sinister atmosphere through far more subtle means. Almost immediately, the viewer can tell that there is something inherently wrong with this village, but what? What follows is nearly two and a half hours of exploration into this query.

This being Wilhelmine Germany, patriarchal values are still front and center, and the town is clearly dominated by a certain gaggle of male authority figures: the Baron, the Baron’s steward, the doctor, the pastor. They rule through traditional means of intimidation and punishment, more often than not erring on the side of abuse. Out of their offenses, the frightening events in the village appear less and less like aberrations and more as something that grows organically out of this environment of fear, as the misery simply piles on for the targets of cruelty: the village women, a poor, working family and the children, always the children.

Haneke has made it clear that the children are meant to be the centerpiece of “The White Ribbon,” and God, how deservedly so. Both the characterization and the actors are extraordinary. There is Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), always unsettlingly calm; Martin (Leonard Proxauf), whose pain barely hides below the surface; Rudi, the doctor’s little son, who hides from his father in the closet and does not understand death. And on, and on. Why are these children so important? Do a quick calculation in your head and figure out who they will become in 20, 25 years. It’s impossible not to watch and not to wonder.

Representing the film’s one ray of hope is the school teacher (Christian Friedel), who falls haplessly and innocently in love with Eva (Leonie Benesch), the new nanny to the Baron’s twin babies. Their blossoming romance provides just a touch of humor and optimism to the film, preventing the viewing experience from being completely soul-crushing. Meanwhile, his fresh, uncorrupted perspective might make him the only person in town capable of seeing the truth of what is happening in the village.

The technical elements of “The White Ribbon” are superbly employed in the creation of the film’s foreboding atmosphere. For instance, an expert understanding of positioning figures within the frame quickly makes a simple image of children standing outside a window more threatening than one of blatant violence. Usually, cinematographers employ a black-and-white color scheme to emphasize the black; that is, to sharpen and enhance those creepy shadows (see: German expressionist films like “Nosferatu” or most film noir). Here, Haneke’s cinematographer Christian Berger uses the stark contrast within the monochromatic scale to bring out the white portions of the frame, playing off of the film’s overt connection between the color white and the ideas of purity, youth and innocence. Some of the most beautiful images in the movie are of the countryside surrounding the village, completely blanketed in snow as winter sets in; however, the town’s clean, pristine exterior cannot cover the evil still lurking underneath.

Labeling “The White Ribbon” as an investigation into the rise of Nazism is an intriguing but far too simplistic angle from which to approach the film. Patriarchal authority and mistreated childhoods were hardly unique to pre-World War I Germany. The cyclical nature of violence and the spread of abuse from one generation to another are, sadly, as universal as the romance between Eva and the school teacher. We want to read “The White Ribbon” as we do one of those original Grimms’ fairy tales, those creepy and unnatural fables of morality, but we can’t. Whatever happens in that little farming town is disturbingly, frighteningly, undeniably human.

Issue 19, Submitted 2010-03-25 08:43:24