On the simplest level Michael Haneke’s new film about the malignant undercurrents that trouble a rural German village on the eve of World War I can be seen as a rebuke to the myriad portraits we’ve had of rustic nineteenth-century communities as close-knit societies that, despite the occasional bit of nastiness, were essentially idyllic. (Many charming BBC mini-series have fit such a pattern.) But what Haneke offers in this brilliant piece—a true epic in spite of its limited locale and relatively small scale—is far more than that. It’s a commentary not just on aspects of the German character that can be seen as prophetic factors in that country’s unhappy twentieth-century history, but more generally on qualities inherent in human nature that explain the seemingly endemic horrors that have marked the life of the species, perhaps especially in the modern age.
The locale is an agricultural hamlet called Eichwald, presided over by the baron (Ulrich Tukur), the region’s great landowner; and the time is a single year, mid-1913 to the summer of 1914 that ended with the outbreak of the Great War. The story is narrated retrospectively by an elderly man (voiced by Ernst Jacobi), who at the time was the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). Admitting that he personally witnessed some of the events but knows others only by hearsay, he says he’s relating the strange tale because it might explain something about his country’s later fate.
The story is one of a strange malevolence that grows in the community over the year’s course. It begins with a malicious prank played on the local doctor (Rainer Bock), a widower who’s seriously injured when he and his horse are tripped by a wire strung between two trees on the approach to his house. He’s carted off to a hospital in an unnamed town nearby, leaving his two children, a 14-year old daughter and her young brother, in the care of his housekeeper and office manager (Susanne Lothar). Shortly afterward a peasant woman is killed in an accident in the baron’s mill, and her death leads her furious son to destroy the nobleman’s cabbage patch—an insult as well as an act of vandalism.
Matters escalate when the baron’s son is abducted and tortured; the boy is also treated brutally by one of his playmates, who steals his flute. The events lead his mother (Ursina Lardi) to decamp with him to Italy, and the baron to fire Eva (Leonie Benesch), the young governess who also happens to be the girl our unmarried narrator has set his eye, and heart, on. Other little horrors occur as well, as when a man’s infant son falls ill after someone in the family leaves the window of the child’s room open on a cold night. But the culmination comes when another boy—the mentally challenged son of the doctor’s assistant—is also brutalized, found with a note saying that sons will suffer for the sins of their fathers.
And those are only the major incidents. The atmosphere is rife with suicide, infidelity, domestic cruelty, and stern parental control that even degenerates into child molestation. Presiding over it all is the village minister (Burghart Klaussner), a brooding martinet whose eldest daughter Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and son Martin (Leonard Proxauf) are never able to satisfy him, are punished for disappointing him—and seem always near the site of the crimes being perpetrated.
To be sure, there are episodes in “The White Ribbon”—the title refers to a piece of cloth the minister ties to his children to remind them always to keep themselves pure and undefiled—that lighten the mood. The most obvious is the sweet romance between the schoolteacher and the governess, which has an innocence the couplings in town lack. (Of course, it must be remembered that the teacher is the narrator, and has an incentive to present himself in a good light. Moreover, these two are outsiders, having come to their jobs from nearby villages.) But there’s certainly charm and simple goodness in one of the minister’s younger sons, who not only nurses an injured fledgling back to health but offers it to his father as a replacement for his beloved pet, which someone has killed.
For the most part, however, the film concentrates on the simmering resentments and bursts of violence that mark a community riven by class divisions, economic disparities and familial repression—all precursors to, it’s suggested (and perhaps causes of)—the great international show of hatred and destruction that’s about to occur. And the impact is especially felt by the young, who carry the scars of their parents’ casual cruelties and are shaped by them. At times the picture you feel the picture might be called “Village of the Damned,” though the sci-fi connotation would be all wrong.
This is an ensemble piece, but Friedel, Benesch, Klaussner, Bock, Lothare, Dragus and Proxauf stand out, and so too do Christoph Kanter’s simple but impeccable production design and Christian Berger’s evocative cinematography, which avoids beautifying the even the glistening snowscapes. Haneke manages every aspect impeccably, in an approach that is simultaneously theatrical and subdued—a seemingly impossible combination that he pulls off, subtly generating extraordinary tension in the process.
What “The White Ribbon” calls to mind, in a way, is a piece of Americana—“Wisconsin Death Trip.” Not so much the 1999 film, which, while intriguing, was too amateurishly executed to create the atmosphere it strove for, but Michael Lesy’s book, which through a rich tapestry of period photos and text manages to convey in almost hallucinatory terms an impressionistic picture of the inexplicable madness and irrational violence that marked the local history of a remote area of nineteenth-century America. Haneke’s film, of course, has a different nationalist point of departure, and a peculiar social structure to deal with. But it raises similarly profound and provocative issues while leaving us to grapple with them by avoiding an easy resolution. Evocative and suspenseful, it’s both a masterful recreation of a past age and a remarkable rumination on the constants of human frailty and societal brutality.