The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

It’s so much more than, say, a Children of the Corn for intellectuals, because frankly you’re never quite sure the kids really did do all the fucked up stuff, despite how creepy they come off (especially the pastor’s older daughter, the one who does the thing to the bird and clearly has mental issues of some kind yet makes it a point to be respectful and polite towards grown-ups and strangers – one of the creepiest children I’ve ever seen in a movie). In fact, it feels like finding out “whodunnit” isn’t the point in the least – someone set a wire that tripped the doctor, someone beat up the retarded kid, someone set the baron’s barn on fire, someone was likely responsible for the “accident” that killed the woman at the mill. Is it the same person? Different people working in conjunction, or for completely different reason? Honestly, who cares? The point is that a wire between two trees that tripped a doctor on a horse sets off a chain reaction of people becoming suspicious of neighbors they’ve known for generations, of sexual and physical abuse, of an always-caring and dutiful mother and her son disappearing under mysterious and distressing circumstances.  Even the teacher (and narrator’s) courtship of the shy nanny for the baron, the nicest and most innocent subplot in the film, is tinged with unease in this town slowly and subtly going to hell.

The town’s structure is remarkably simple – the baron and his family are in charge in their big, fancy house, and all the people in town – the pastor, the doctor, the steward, the farmers – all know their purpose and serve it, and the way so much of the misgivings and hatred that develop over the course of the film seem to be aimed at the baron – the fire, the appalling mistreatment of his spoiled young son, the ruining of his crops, it’d be easy to say that Haneke is making an anti-authoritarianism statement, that the ruination of this tiny pre-World War I farm town is a microcosm of the coming storm of Nazism, that a seemingly stable society in which one man or family is in charge and everyone else does a different task towards a common goal of essentially serving that man, is destined to fail when the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, or a wire tripping a doctor’s horse, begins a chain reaction of misgivings and the slow rotting of that society.  And yet, “The White Ribbon” feels so much more apolitical than that simple explanation.  In a more common genre picture, the town likely would’ve devolved into all-out chaos and violence, but not here.  It’s structured almost like an Altman film, as we get to know many different people and families in the village, each getting enough screentime for us to learn about them, and the secrets that begin to come out.  The doctor is initially the victim of a tripwire and thus garners our sympathy, but soon is revealed to be a cruel monster towards his mistress and possibly sexually abusive towards his young daughter.  The pastor is seemingly cruel to his children, but in an odd kind of way seems to truly believe that his embarrassing them by making them wear a white ribbon and otherwise treating them like inferior soldiers in a platoon, is in their best interest, so his motivations and true nature are also impossible to discern.  And we see it all like the teacher narrates it, as objective observers, for the black-and-white cinematography and technical qualities of the film are that good, the camera often gliding through a scene like how our eyes would look back and forth at its players (the occasional stagnant shot of, say, a character leaving and entering a room so that we stay outside that room, or some other non-moving camera shot, will draw too much attention to itself and be to the film’s detriment, but generally this is rare), making the proceedings feel that much more natural, that despite how little sense the bizarre events make, how the clues just don’t add up, it really feels like the fate of this town couldn’t go down any other way.  The moral and intellectual destruction of this town happens almost completely behind the scenes, as we see only the results of the violent acts, never the acts themselves, and unlike, say, von Trier’s “Dogville,” the ruination of the town isn’t physical, but emotional; not involving mass death and the smoldering ruins of buildings, but the introduction of suspicions and mistrust that will only increase over time, and for that reason it’s much more insidious.  I can’t be entirely sure what Haneke’s trying to say about human nature, but if a tripwire can be the catalyst for such an outwardly organized and religiously-based town abandoning the basic tenet of Love-Thy-Neighbor, essentially becoming a ticking time bomb of misgivings that no Sunday church service will cure, no matter how innocuous and ‘back to normal’ that service seems, it can’t be good.


1 comment so far

  1. theshadowofsolaris on

    Not too much time ago I discovered your blog. Today I return to visit it and meet one of the best movies that I have seen in the last months. I have a blog in Spanish and in it I have done an analysis to Haneke and his movies (I am Spanish) but have encouraged to do one in English that I began yesterday and, curiously, to do it with the same movie that your you analyze here.
    I have liked very much this comparison with The children of thhe corn, I had not thought it this way, it’s funny.
    I invite my to which you happen for it and read it if you desire it (
    A greeting and thanks for your attention.

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