Let’s watch the master.
Michael Haneke is one of my favorite directors, and watching this film again reminds me of the man’s skill. A couple things before the review starts: this review will contain spoilers, and this film (and Haneke as a whole) is not for everyone. A lot of his movies function more as endurance tests that force you to consider deeply what is on the screen and hear questions that don’t have answers.
The White Ribbon examines a small German village in the early 1900s. The village is pastoral, but hardly idyllic—and the harsh conditions of the farming class are juxtaposed to the lavish home of the baron and his family. Strange events begin occurring, and the film leads us into the First World War. How fascism rises is a question this film asks (without ever saying it aloud) and the answer isn’t entirely clear.
Haneke loves asking us hard questions without offering easy answers It is too easy to ascribe the rise fascism to religion, politics, class, or the plethora of other factors individually. Haneke argues that evil is evil—no matter the manifestation, and as we focus on one problematic area, we tend to avoid others.
The village doctor is brutally injured by a cruel prank that unhorses him (killing the horse) and almost kills him. Who is responsible is not clear, and the village slowly moves back to normalcy. Another accident takes the life of a villager’s wife, and now there are class tensions. Shortly after, the Baron’s son is kidnapped and beaten.
These incidents are sometimes linked—sometimes not. However, we—like the village—focus more on the mystery elements surrounding these crimes and not the horrid treatment of children, women, and the underclass of the society. By focusing on the so called larger issues the more systemic ones suddenly become less exciting.
As the village continues to grapple with these issues we head toward an expected—but not cathartic—conclusion. Who is truly guilty doesn’t matter as there will be no justice for these sorts of crimes. Those in power get away with these things. However, those without power have the same capacity for cruelty as those at the top of the social structure. When a society (however enclosed) ignores evil it will fester.
The film looks amazing, and the black and white color palette works better than it ever could in color. (The film was not shot on black and white film, but colorized and then decolorized, giving it a unique feel). The acting is fantastic, and the truly horrifying moments are not shown to us. Instead we have to look into the minds of the characters based on their structured and often uneven conversations. The children are the clear show-stealers, and how they play a part in these tragedies makes for an impactful and tragic conclusion.
The White Ribbon is a social horror film with the horror cut away. We are left with the tragic remainder of things we know we can control, but actively choose not to (as an individual or a society). An excellent film.