I am not exactly sure what director Michael Haneke was actually trying to say with The White Ribbon
but I walked out of the theatre feeling as if I'd just watched a very engaging and very dark take on the already gloomy Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson. The film tells the story of the fictional village of Eichwald in the years of 1913-14. A narrator tells us that the events portrayed are from his younger years when he was a schoolteacher there and that telling this tale might "clarify things" that later happened in Germany.
The opening scene is that of the town doctor returning home on his horse when suddenly it topples over and throws its rider to the ground. Someone had strung some wire between two trees with the intended results seriously injuring the doctor and his horse. This strange act of malice is followed by other similar ones including the son of the local baron being beaten with a cane as he hung upside down in the sawmill. Despite the local constabulary being called in, no perpetrator is ever found and no explanations are given. But there is another incident that seemingly had no malicious intent behind it – the wife of one of the town's farmers dies when some floorboards in the upper level of the sawmill gave way and the woman fell to her death.
As the tragic events unfold, we also get to know some of the village's inhabitants and their less than savory private lives. For instance, the local pastor is a strict disciplinarian who exacts harsh punishments for rather minor transgressions and he ties white ribbons to a couple of the children's arms to remind them of their innocence which is, in his eyes, maintained by harsh punishment. The whole family suffers when one of the children doesn't come home on time as the father denies everyone dinner. Later in the film, when one of his sons, Martin, admits to masturbating, he has the boy's arms restrained while in bed.
By this time, the doctor has returned from the hospital and there is a great transition as we cut from Martin being lectured about the evils of onanism to the doctor's office where he and the local midwife have just finished what appears to be a very clinical session of sex. The doctor is a widower and he enlisted the midwife to help around the office and look after his children. But at one point he launches a vicious verbal attack and excoriates her for being ugly, among other things. The pity I had for the midwife only increased when her mentally retarded son was kidnapped and later found after someone had attempted to blind the boy.
For his part, the school teacher looks on at what is happening in the village horrified. But amidst the chaos, we see him woo Eva, a young woman from a nearby town who was fired as the Baron's governess. She is shy and innocent and their courtship provides the only relief from the tragedy unfolding in Eichwald.The White Ribbon
was shot in color but Haneke had it all drained away leaving behind some gorgeous black & white. There are many long shots which double as long takes where he refuses to cut in. We viewers are held at arm's length for much of the film. Some scenes feature only natural light which can mean simply a lantern or two. Furthermore the camera is static. No graceful Steadicam work to be found here. While the cinematography contributes an austere beauty, the absence of any music on the soundtrack is resoundingly stark. There are no cues trying to direct the viewer's sympathies or emphasize an action or character. We are left with light & shade, facial expressions, and dialogue.
The film comes to a close with World War I looming and the schoolteacher approaching the pastor with his conviction that the children of the village are to blame for the misery that has befallen it over the past year. However willing he is to inflict pain and humiliation on his own children, the pastor will be damned if he'll let an outsider, of sorts, make such an accusation. He threatens to denounce the schoolteacher publicly which silences him. Our narrator tells us that he eventually left Eichwald and life went on there as it had before.
What was Haneke trying to say? That authoritarianism in dealing with one's neighbors and children was necessary for the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust? Sufficient? I am not familiar with Haneke or his previous films so I'm not sure whether such a simplistic argument is one he'd likely make. However such a proposition seems too simple. I suppose the film is making a more general case that desperate people take desperate actions. In the film, the pastor's daughter Klara sticks a pair of scissors into her father's bird in an act of revenge. There is also a scene where the son of the woman who fell through the floor of the sawmill takes a scythe to the Baron's cabbage patch as he blamed the Baron's negligence for his mother's death. Perhaps these scenes are the most important of the film as they demonstrate how those who are oppressed or downtrodden will lash out unpredictably and irrationally and this kind of anger can be manipulated by a person like Adolf Hitler. It isn't that treating one's neighbors and children so horribly leads to fascism but that more general feelings of anger and contempt can be directed outward by an entire country.