Austrian Director Michael Haneke is one of cinema’s most revered and also most reviled with films that are typically bleak or disturbing, nerve-rattling and shocking.
From his first major film “The Seventh Continent” of modern alienation to his next film “Benny’s Video” about a 14-year-old who is fascinated by watching violent acts via playback on video, his shocking “Funny Games” (which was remade in the US) to the titillating 2002 film “The Piano Teacher” which won three major awards at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival comes his award winning film “The White Ribbon”.
Known as “Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte”, “The White Ribbon” is a black and white film which premiered at the 62nd Cannes International Film Festival in 2009 and won the highly covered Palme d’Or and also the 2010 Golden Globe Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” and also nominated for an Academy Award.
“The White Ribbon” is a film that has been in development for more than a decade and Haneke has said of the film as about “the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature”. Haneke said it best when he described the film as children following the idealism of their parent’s generation but followed it blindly. That when you follow idealism blindly, they become inhuman and that this is the root of every form of terrorism.
“The White Ribbon” is a film that has the touch of a classic film and also probably in director Michael Haneke’s oeuvre, a true masterpiece. Haneke knows how to make the audience feel uncomfortable and its the point of the film to open the viewer’s eyes of idealism shattered and radicalism, extremism breeding and eventually planting the seeds to terrorism.
The film is literally a look at society within a small village during the early 20th century. Old customs, old idealism and a time where leadership revolved around an employer, its pastor and a doctor. But as these three characters are a big part of “The White Ribbon”, the film is about the oppression and idealism that children must follow and there is no one wanting to rise against the main leadership in the village.
In the Baron’s case, we get to see the children wanting to act on impulse against the Baron. As he represents the rich who is oppressing the poor, none of the adults are willing to stand up. There is no union representing employees, there is no voice amongst the villagers and the children can’t understand why things are the way they are. They just see this rich family, a selfish Baron and his wife and their many employees and young son who gets everything he wants and is nothing like them.
The Baron and his family are the most privileged people in the village. They are rich and aren’t afraid to flaunt their riches and the adults respect that position in power and no matter how much work they have to do, it’s the way of the village. But for the children, some are growing tired of it and you have a sense that they have had enough of seeing their parents literally having to be bend over backwards for them.
The pastor is ultra-conservative and it’s one thing to have unruly children, but at his home, the pastor is incredibly strict and can easily be seen as the religious fanatic. His eldest daughter and son have a hint of trouble making personalities who don’t understand why certain things in life, they get punished for it. From being late, to one reaching puberty and discovering themselves, it’s all a sin according to their father and for them not displaying their innocence and purity, they are punished and forced to wear a white ribbon to remind them at all times that they must be pure and innocent.
The doctor who is well-respected in the village is obviously the person that is well-educated and as much as he is seen as a caring individual, in truth, he is demeaning and all that he has in his mind is sex. He uses his employee, the mid-wife as his sexual toy (even though he detests her) and his parenting as a father of a teenage daughter and young son is not so close. If anything, his preoccupation of sex is disturbing as we see him showing interest in his daughter.
The narrator, the teacher, is possibly the main shining light of the film. The narrator tells his story of when he was a 31-year-old man who has fallen for the Baroness’ nanny who tries to be there for the children and the viewer literally sees the story through his eyes.
Through this character, we see that he is just a normal man who enjoys teaching children and has no true connection to the village other than living there and teaching the children. The narration takes us out of those tense moments as he is focused on wanting to marry a young woman.
But the character is instrumental as giving the viewer information on what has taken place at the village but also his scenes is that breather to take us away from those tense moments that happen throughout the film. The story is told to us via his viewpoint and for the most part, a man who tries to see the good in people and has blinded him of what has been happening in the village.
And with these characters, one is left thinking…is this breakdown of idealism is what leads to radical thoughts. Ignorance, apathy, pessimism… Have the children of this village became amoral to anyone’s suffering? Is this their form of rebelling? There is no doubt that “The White Ribbon” is one of those films that will make one think.
The ensemble cast performances is what I found most impressive of “The White Ribbon”. Burghart Klaußner as the pastor is another well-done performance (since I last seen him on “The Edukators”) by the actor, Christian Friedel does a good job at playing the teacher and making us feel that maybe not all people in the village are messed up and the more I think about the film, I can literally list several names that caught my attention but I have to admit that the performances by the pastor’s elder children Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf) literally haunt you.
Klara definitely embodies mischief while Martin is a boy who is at his breaking point, always being punished and doesn’t know if he wants to be part of this life and wonders if God hates him and wants him to die. Again, there are so many well-done performances in this film, it’s well-cast and each character from the adults and the children really make us feel the pain that lingers around the village.
I’ve read how people perceived the film about fascism. Some viewers who felt that this was a film that is about how children became insensitive towards humanity and thus led to their roles in Nazi Germany. Director Michael Haneke said it best when he described the film as children following the idealism of their parent’s generation but followed it blindly. That when you follow idealism blindly, they become inhuman and that this is the root of every form of terrorism. Haneke wanted to show the breakdown of idealism and that this film could be shot in the UK, US or anywhere around the world and that blind idealism gone astray can happen anywhere and its happening now.
But there is no doubt that with the film shot in Germany, at the way their time period exists around the time Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo which eventually would lead to World War I in 1914 and that possibly, how these children were raised made them quite amoral in attitudes towards the death of others and their support for the Nazi regime. But I do understand Haneke’s explanation that the breakdown of idealism is not limited to Germany, this is something that can happen anywhere around the world.
Overall, “The White Ribbon” is one of those films that viewers may find to bleak and also may come out feeling no closure or happy ending. The fact is that if you are familiar with Haneke’s films, you shouldn’t be expecting a happy ending. And as far as bleakness is concerned, this is what Haneke is a master of. Knowing how to take repress, oppressed characters and showing how they can be inspired to do violent acts.
There is no doubt about it. This is a chilling film but it is also a well-written, well-shot and well-performed, for the most part, “The White Ribbon” is definitely a Michael Haneke masterpiece.