It might be slightly twisted of me I know, but I love it when a film disturbs me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good inspirational story (maybe not as much as the next person), but there’s something about being physically, intellectually, or morally unsettled that, to me, is a potentially more rewarding experience. Though I don’t do much of the new horror films very well (torture porn’s detachment from any semblance of reality is troublesome to put it lightly), I am intrigued by Asian shock cinema. Go figure. Few filmmakers unsettle me as effectively as Michael Haneke (who as a teenager wanted to be a preacher), even as he also occasionally employs brutal violence. His latest film, The White Ribbon, has stuck with me for a few days now and will most likely do so for some time to come.
The White Ribbon takes place in a small north Germany village in the years just before World War I. It is narrated by the now-aged village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who begins by telling us that he is not sure if the story he wants to tell us is completely true or not. Thus, from the start, an air of uncertainty (logistically and soon morally) dominates the film. The schoolteacher recounts a string of tragic, disturbing events that plague the small village beginning with a mysterious horse-riding accident that leaves the village doctor (Rainer Bock), with a broken collar bone (someone rigged a trip-wire between two trees). Shortly thereafter, a peasant farmer’s wife dies in a mill accident, the baron’s son is abducted and beaten, someone destroys the baron’s cabbage crop, and a child is tortured and eventually dies (is murdered?). The villagers puzzle over who could do such things and begin to suspect each other, although the accusations rarely fly on-screen. Viewers will quickly begin formulating theories of their own as well, but the brilliance and effectiveness of Haneke’s film is that he yet again leaves us wondering not only who did it but how such events could happen in an otherwise seemingly peaceful town…and that seems to be the point.
The film has been described as Haneke’s attempt to explain the origins of fascism and Naziism, yet I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment when he writes, “It’s too simple to say the film is about the origins of Nazism. If that were so, we would all be Nazis.” Moreover, to explain away fascism/Naziism is to relegate it to a “conquered” portion of history so to speak…as if to say that we’ve got it figured out and can prevent it from happening all over again, when, in reality, we will forever struggle against and try to understand incomprehensible evil. It’s also too little to say that Haneke is just suggesting that “shit happens.” Although this is, in a way, a good explanation, shit happens because evil and broken people cause it. As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” Haneke reveals that, though the public tragedies shock the villagers and, by extension, the viewers, the villagers’ secrets are much more disturbing…physical and sexual abuse of children to begin with.
Speaking of the children, they are the highlight, if a depressing one, of the film. One could quickly suspect the children of perpetrating these crimes as retaliation to the often brutally oppressive world in which they are raised. Two of the children, Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), belong to the village minister (Burghart Klausser) who enforces his strict Protestantism on them. He beats them when they are late for dinner, makes them wear white ribbons to remind them of innocence, and even ties Martin to the bed to prevent him from masturbating. No wonder many of these kids look like they belong in the Village of the Damned. In fact, that’s just what their home is.
Haneke’s morally and aesthetically stark film is a challenge to our notions of good and evil, sin, freedom and oppression. It also provides a vision, much needed I believe, of the ways in which Christianity has often been, and can be, violently oppressive of even its own members.
The White Ribbon is rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.
Here is a video of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky interviewing Haneke about the film.