White Ribbon is a film that will endlessly be argued about for years to come. Many will argue it is a classic. Others will argue it is boring and that Haneke is unwatchable. Some will even say it is disturbing. My brother, who I do a podcast with, became vitriolic towards the film, claiming it was boring, over-hyped, and not shocking at all. Well, I obviously disagree with him, but you might not.
White Ribbon is a great new Austrian, or German*, film which explores a village in Eichwald, Germany from 1913 all the way up until the killing of the Archduke Ferdinand. Most people viewing the film will know that the killing of Archduke Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led to World War One. Peculiar things are happening in this small village. The film opens with a doctor riding a horse which is tripped by a wire between two trees. The doctor is almost killed when he is thrown from the horse and his collarbone breaks, entering his neck. The audience is left with the questions: Who tied the string there? And why? More incidents occur within the town. Haneke allows the audience to make up their mind on who the culprit is and why. But much is left unsaid. Most of the incidents happen off camera and little is provided to lead the viewer toward an ultimate conclusion.
The main character is a schoolteacher who narrates the story from the future, long after World War Two. He opens with a quote, “I don’t know if the story I’m about to tell you is entirely true.” Even he is unsure of the events that unfolded in the village. We are given many hints toward possibilities, but no solid conclusions can be established. Yes, Haneke shows us from the start that it is likely the children committing the acts of violence and destruction. But how can we be sure? The film is not a whodunit, although it is often discussed like one, but instead is an allegory for human evil. The parents in this film are brutal and abusive. They’re sexually repressive and even so much as horsing around in front of a class can be of the utmost offense to parents. Haneke is not subtle in his thematic conclusions toward evil, but he sure is when it comes to style.
Much of the criticisms for this movie will come from Haneke’s style, which taken from an American point-of-view, can be extremely exhausting. I’m not saying it is bad, but it is definitely different. American audiences will have trouble with the pacing. Again, I’m not insulting Americans or the film, I’m just pointing that out.
Haneke’s 2005 film Cache, or Hidden in English, was one of the slowest films I’ve ever seen to get such critical acclaim. Now I’ll go back and watch it couple times before I die, but that film just didn’t capture my attention. White Ribbon uses much of the same elements: No music. Great Distance between the subject and audience. Infrequent edits. Long takes. Very little action in the traditional sense. In this film he even uses black and white to distance the audience from the subject. How does B/W distance the audience? Well, I’m not sure. But it does. This is a great film and should be seen by everyone who can stomach its pace. Haneke could have made everyone in this film evil. I was worried about the school teacher doing something awful, but allows us the schoolteacher as a moral lens.
It is a patient, analytical look at human beings, what makes us tick, and ultimately what drives our desires for cruelty. I’ve written a bit more about the film, but beware, I divulge some of the plot so there are definitely spoilers.
I say: A
You’ll say: B+
*I’ve read multiple sources that claim the movie is Austrian by business and crew, but German in language. I assume it would be not dissimilar to incorrectly calling Letters from Iwo Jima a Japanese film.
(Spoiler alert) Okay so, I’m a weirdo and read the screenplays of many of the films I see. It is a fantastic way to learn about the filmmakers execution as well as what the filmmakers decided to cut out. For example, did you know Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood was impotent? Moreover, here is an excerpt from the last narration of the film. This part of the monologue was cut:
Didn’t we all know secretly what had happened in our midst? Hadn’t we, in a way, made it possible by closing our eyes? Didn’t we keep our mouths shut because otherwise we would have had to wonder if the misdeeds of these children, of our children, weren’t actually the result of what we’d been teaching them?
What a provocative statement. Haneke left this paragraph out for good reason. Yes, it would have made the themes much more clear to an audience that was a bit confused, but I think too much is being placed on this film as an allegory for fascism. If you leave this sentence in, that’s all people might think. I dug desperately to find some proof of this and hit the jackpot with Haneke saying this: “Moreover, the film is not just about fascism, which would be too simplistic an interpretation since the story is set in Germany, but about a definite pattern and the universal problem of corrupted ideals.” Cool.