The White Ribbon
Note: Following the viewing of this startling movie, my dad and I engaged in a very exciting and detailed discussion, during which he proclaimed that The White Ribbon is one of the most memorable movies he has ever seen. Since I consider his opinions to be of the utmost credibility, I think that comment registers as a very winning endorsement.
Michael Haneke's latest cinematic opus is deeply intrigued with the various shades of gray that define the human experience, so, naturally, the movie is shot in black and white. Haneke is one of those rare filmmakers who operates from the outer rim of the narrative realm. He pursues his themes with such daring determination that the stories defy simple categorization and transcend basic plot devices. It is as though he has plucked his cinematic vocabulary from some dark netherworld never before visited by a recognizable being. Haneke's work is entirely singular and his latest movie, a haunting tale of good and evil coexisting in an idyllic German village on the cusp of the First World War, is no exception.
As the cautious narrator of The White Ribbon explains, a series of strange incidents occurred in the seemingly peaceful village over the course of approximately one year. The incidents were comprised of various acts of violence aimed mostly at children, but considering that the village doctor is the first victim of the mysterious atrocities, it is clear that no one, neither child nor adult, is completely safe. The majority of filmmakers would turn such a story into an eerie thriller with a big, bombastic reveal, but Haneke has no desire to wrap things up with a tidy explanation.
His interest lies in twisting our perceptions and forcing us to stew in the consequences of imperfect actions. The White Ribbon is not a movie about all-encompassing answers, but rather a ponderous series of questions fascinated with the human thirst for revenge. Haneke is reminding us that we are all guilty of something, without ever being necessarily defined by evil, and that we are all in this mess together. It's not the most pleasant view of the world, but it is an engrossing one.
Haneke is able to navigate this morally convoluted territory without ever resorting to preachy noise, which is especially impressive given the harrowing nature of the message. Haneke is exposing the dark underbelly of a seemingly civilized community and he uses the village as both a microcosm for society as a whole and a metaphor for the horrors of war. There is so much thematic meat packed on to the movie's bleached bones that narrative dissection becomes a lengthy, layered process.
There is no easy way to approach The White Ribbon. It is dense, disturbing, and potentially alienating to many viewers. Haneke refuses to play by the expected rules and, as a result, he has crafted something strangely unforgettable. The notion of evil lurking beneath the surface has been explored so many times before that there is a sense of basic conventions that are likely to be followed. But Haneke shreds any possibility of a recognizable approach to the material by putting us in the midst of this malevolent maelstrom and leaving the interpretation of events up to us.
Even the narrator admits that much of the story he is sharing is based on hearsay and may not be true, a revelation that both shapes and shakes our understanding of the movie's events. If the version of the story that we are watching originates from a place of assumption and second-hand tales, then how much of it can we trust? Even though the narrator's voice belongs to the village's school teacher (Christian Friedel), who appears to be a very trustworthy person in the context of the story, we must accept that the story is cobbled together in a fashion that invites a mixture of fact and fiction.
This aspect of the narrative deepens the mystery of the conflict and further fleshes out Haneke's intention to leave us on our own to sift through right and wrong, truth and fabrication. It also connects us to the characters in an effective manner by forcing us to face the same moral quandary as the people of the village with the same lack of certainty. Everyone walks around like they have no idea what is going on, even though clearly some of them do, and the emotional ambiguity that infects most of the characters is expertly performed by every single person that appears in front of the camera.
The cast is a wide-ranging mixture of children and adults, all of whom are so convincing in their roles that the line between performer and performance is completely eradicated. There are no faults in the acting to sway us in one direction or another, as the adults manage to behave despicably without going overboard and the children manage to embody the innocence and purity referenced by the title, while maintaining the flicker of cold, dark anger in their eyes. It's all stuck so completely in the middle that we must struggle to form our own opinions of what is happening, which is exactly the way Haneke likes it.
The White Ribbon is an exquisitely gorgeous movie to watch, one that is visually defined by its lack of colour and confident use of archaic light sources, such as torches and gas lamps. Like the story at its core, the movie employs a certain type of beauty to mask the horrors below. Haneke is looking beyond the façade, but he is not telling us what to see. Instead, he shows us a version of a story and then enables us to draw our own conclusions. He invites us into the small village and leaves us to find our own way out. The world of The White Ribbon is far from being black and white. It only appears that way on the surface, where questions are posed and the answers fade slowly and surely into the gray spaces that linger between the light and the dark.