The White Ribbon

by Chris Bertram on November 15, 2009

I saw Michael Haneke’s new film, The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band) last night. A beautiful and disturbing evocation of childhood and evil in a small German village on the eve of World War 1. It really cements Haneke’s reputation as one of the greatest film-makers working today. The central thread of the film concerns a series of vindictive and increasingly sadistic attacks, first on the village doctor, then on small children, starting in the summer of 1913. Haneke doesn’t do “closure” (hooray for that!) , so, as with Hidden, we can never be quite sure what happened and who was responsible for what, though at the end of the film there is a very strong suggestion as to the identity of the culprits. Though such events provide the narrative thread, the real substance of the film is its exploration of the repressive family relationships that pervade the village: most prominently, the pastor’s rule over his children, but also the doctor’s vicious treatment of his mistress, and the cold of the Baron’s marriage.

Heimat is bound to be a point of comparison, though, of course, the action in Edgar Reitz’s work beings with a return to a village in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat in 1918. Haneke’s characters are, with a few exceptions, much less sympathetically portrayed that Reitz’s.

Watching the film, which despite its length, was sufficiently engrossing to pass quickly, I was led to reflect on how close we are in time to the events depicted and how impossibly distant we are from them (two world wars and massive technological and social change stand between us and those villages of feudal deference and agrarian drudgery). A year ago seems nothing, but, iterate 96 times or so, and little remains in common. Still, the real-life counterparts of the smallest of Haneke’s child characters might still be living today.

One small semi-technical note. I believe that the film was shot in digital colour and then converted to black and white. The monochrome imagery is often superb, but a definite digital flavour remained in the tonality: a very small flaw in a terrific movie.