Michael Haneke’s films (The Piano Teacher, Caché) tend to evoke either ga-ga reactions or utter disgust from even veteran filmgoers. Still, most Haneke fans feel they got off easy in the brutal violence department with this movie, which already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and likely is destined for Best Foreign Film accolades come Oscar time.
Superficially, the black-and-white film set in Germany just on the precipice of World War I resembles an Ingmar Bergman movie, with its bleak, severe, and unloving protagonists, primarily represented by the village pastor (Burghart Klaußner) and physician (Rainer Bock). In the film’s most profound moment, a little boy insistently questions his sister about the inevitability and universality of death. With surprising tenderness, she assures her sibling that he will die, but a long time from now, probably. In response, he pushes a bowl off the table and stares at her defiantly.
But the film’s main actions, narrated by an ultimately ineffectual school teacher, concern a series of mysterious and sinister occurrences, including torture, abduction, and the destruction of property, with the implication—never resolved—that village children may be behind some or all of the crimes. To us, the children sometimes seem like little Aryan monsters, reminiscent of that famous 1960s science-fiction film where blue eyes blaze against the forces that might oppose them. At the same time, however, we glimpse the reasons for their little band of retribution and silence-preserving. One boy, accused of touching himself, is tied into bed nightly by his sister, and a caning behind closed doors is the most fearful moment in the movie.
Haneke insists that this is a film about the real roots of terrorism. Maybe you’ll feel this is a surprisingly reductive assessment of what really happens here, despite the emphasis on injustices and casual cruelties—like the doctor’s horrific treatment of his obviously devoted mistress. Deeper elements of animal despair seem to seep up from the village turf: Innocence is questioned, sexual and class repressions seem inevitable, and most of it ends in acts of terrifying anger. You also might feel frustrated at the puzzles left unanswered, which seem to be Haneke’s real point.
Maybe Nazis are right around the corner. The film gives good evidence why a generation of horrifyingly intolerant people might live next door to people who acquiesce at the advent of atrocities with eyes firmly averted. But The White Ribbon really feels more generally true than historically accurate. Another way of looking at Haneke’s film is that it’s a year in the life of a little town full of private mysteries, honestly observed.