When one thinks of scathing cultural critiques, Michael Haneke’s brutal examinations of violence, social dysfunction and the cinematic art form have to rank pretty highly. The director’s 2009 Palme d’Or champion, The White Ribbon, is no different in this regard. The film offers a stark, bone-chilling journey into an otherworldly farming community struggling to survive at the turn of the 20th Century. While oppressive in tone and characteristically ambiguous, the film is a remarkably complex rumination on the effects of patriarchy, sexual repression and class antagonism. These different themes coalesce to deliver a powerful portrait of a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Marked by intense isolation, not to mention a potent lack of modern infrastructure, the town at the heart of The White Ribbon is a startling picture of pre-World War society. These qualities are complimented by the filmmaker’s decision to shoot the film in black and white, which creates a world that feels alien yet familiar at the same time.
Equally jarring is the film’s depiction of the community’s social strata, which is organized by the domineering force of three powerful men. There is The Baron, the largest land owner of the community, who employs a majority of the town in a feudal-like structure. There is the The Doctor, who makes house calls, and is thrown from his horse in the film’s opening. Finally, there is The Pastor, whose moral absolutism seems to hang over the town like a noxious cloud. These men drive the identity of the small community, both for good and ill (but mostly ill). As a series of violent incidents begin to take place, the leadership of the community is called into question. An attempt is made to decipher the identity of the perpetrator, but the most important questions are utterly ignored. There is something awful raging underneath the bucolic serenity of the town. But where did it come from? What caused it? And where will it lead?
One possibility that film posits is that the youth of the town are suffering under the influence of the The Pastor, played with punitive self-righteousness by veteran actor Burghart Klaußner. A deeply repressive, joyless man, The Pastor is an awful little creature. He rules over his family and requires his children to kiss his hand – like he is royalty. He also inculcates them to his rigid worldview, forcing them to espouse a mixture of sexual repression and moral absolutism. The White Ribbon (a title which relates to “ribbons of shame” that The Pastor ties around his children’s arms after a minor infraction) also depicts how the piousness of The Pastor is not something restrained to his own household. The town itself is intensely devout, and the man is given license to extol his values in the community school.
Equally destructive are the characters of The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and The Doctor (Rainer Bock). In The Baron’s case, the fact that nearly the entire town is dependent upon his holdings stirs up deadly acrimony between his family and a family of substance farmers. The Doctor also holds a position of complete power in the village. Due to its isolation, the inhabitants have no other resources to turn to for health related concerns. Similar to The Baron, The Doctor’s unique character makes him into a near God-like figure. Yet, also like the landowner and The Pastor, this status is juxtaposed with a darker, seedier underbelly. The Doctor is a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. He brutalizes the women in his life – which include his young daughter Anna (Roxane Duran) and the local midwife (a sad Susanne Lothar) – with a fiendish sense of self-absorption.
In the film’s depiction of these men, Haneke’s deft writing deserves credit, as none of them come off as one-dimensional monsters (although the good Doc. comes close). If anything, the men all seem to be largely delusional, both in regards to their worldviews and the effects of their actions. The other element that unites them is their perspectives on women. The men appear at best indifferent to females, and at worst openly hostile. There is an unsettling mood that permeates the film in regards to gender relations, with the possibility of sexual violence feeling very real.
There is hardly a functional heterosexual relationship on screen, with the exception of the pairing between Eva (Leonie Benesch), who is the nanny of the Baron’s child, and Christian Friedel’s schoolteacher, who also serves as the story’s narrator. Most of the other women are relegated into second-class status, and are totally absent regarding the decision-making process. The irony however is that several of the women – such as The Baron’s wife – appear far more intuitive about the toxic dynamics percolating within the community.
The large cast handles this challenging material effectively, with the child actors being particularly impressive. Leonard Proxauf as Martin (the son of The Pastor) has a particularly devastating scene, where he is forced to confront the psychological terrorism of his father’s ideology. It’s a heart-breaking sequence, which fully encapsulates how the behavior of the community’s elders is generally pernicious to the youth. Not to be outdone, Roxane Duran holds the screen by playing a challenging, disturbing role. As the daughter of the widowed Doctor, her Anna is a girl forced to assume the role of surrogate mother for her tiny-tot brother Rudolf (an adorable Miljan Chatelain), all the while dealing with her semi-unhinged father.
The film’s feeling of authenticity regarding its children characters, and more broadly of the era’s entire system of cultural mores, is never in question. It’s non-existent music and rich cinematography imbues the proceedings with a harsh, lived-in edge, and compliments the realism of the performances. Darkness, in both its physical and existential forms, dances on the edges of each shot, and the nighttime images of characters illuminated by only a small, weak flicker seem to truly encapsulate the story’s central feeling.
The White Ribbon is unique. It’s challenging undoubtedly, with a bloated running time that does occasionally drag. However, it’s ultimately a rewarding experience, an encounter with an era that feels bygone on one hand and still applicable on the other. Often, one will want to exclaim, “Who ARE these people?”, an expression of incredulity that speaks to how absorbing the film can be. It transports one back in time to a critical point, where Western society was changing. If one judges a society’s health by what is going on behind the closed doors of family homes, this makes The White Ribbon castigating gaze on its time period feel erudite and epic.