Film: The White Ribbon

Cover image

The White Ribbon: (Das Weisse Band)

Director: Michael Haneke
Distributor: Les Films du Losange

On the eve of World War I, strange accidents in a small Protestant village in Northern Germany involve the children and teenagers of a choir run by the schoolteacher and their families. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery as these events gradually take on the character of a punishment ritual.


Like a Twilight Zone episode directed by Antonioni, The White Ribbon weaves an unsettling and enigmatic spell. Michael Haneke’s film is set just before World War I in a village in northern Germany, where a series of strange occurrences take place over several months. These occurrences are sinister and cruel and often involve the children of the village—not merely as victims (although child abuse seems to be a far-from-isolated event) but also as perpetrators. At least that’s the way it appears. Nothing is completely spelled out in Haneke’s scheme, which hints and insinuates and thoroughly gets under the viewer’s skin over the course of 144 edgy minutes. We might notice the children are of an age that will make them mature participants in the horror of Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, but even this is left as an unemphasized point. Since Haneke is an expert at denying explicit conclusions for his projects (see also Caché and Funny Games for more on the subject), we shouldn’t be surprised that he withholds the answers to the questions he poses, or that the film is even more powerful because of this withholding. Adding to the effect is Christian Berger’s Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography, which has a ghostly quality appropriate to the topic. In the end, all the strange happenings of the village are absorbed into the town’s rhythm of life—which might be the most disturbing conclusion of all. —Robert Horton

Like an ice-cold shower, Michael Haneke’s solemn and sobering films are more often good for the soul than a guaranteed pleasure. While not as confrontational as his previous film Funny Games, Haneke’s The White Ribbon—an account of sinister events in a rural German village in 1913—offers no compromises to the audience, but creates an unsolvable, unsettling riddle meant as a remedy to the disposable violence of conventional cinema. The morality of the village is safeguarded by three powerful disciplinarians: a doctor, a pastor and a baron, each privately abusive in different ways. Their order is threatened by a series of local incidents ranging from apparent accidents to acts of callous sabotage and vicious cruelty. The village’s creepy-looking children are somehow involved; in 20 years, the narrator reflects, the same kids will participate in the rise of Nazi Germany, and a link is implied between the rise of fascism and a generation’s moral hypocrisy and authoritarianism. But nothing is confirmed and no-one is accused. Neither is the audience off the hook: we’re complicit in the generalized evil at the heart of The White Ribbon for expecting the kind of palatable violence that’s carried out by unambiguous villains. Haneke gives us no such consolation. To borrow Al Pacino’s great lines from Scarface: we’re not allowed to point our fingers and say ‘that’s the bad guy’, however much we need to. —Leo Batchelor

Views: 270 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.018 sec