“Beauty must suffer.” So says The Doctor (Rainer Bock) in a small German town in Michael Haneke’s latest, The White Ribbon. The line could apply to the characters living in the bucolic village in 1915 as it hurtles toward World War I, the modernity that war unleashed and the fascism it provoked in Germany.
At least that’s what Haneke, or his narrator (Ernst Jacobi), tells us at the start of the film. The voiceover technique is often derided as intrusive and heavy-handed. It’s especially conspicuous in a work by this sometimes stubbornly oblique director. This narrator warns us of the odd tragedies that will befall the village and reflects on the light they shed “some of the things that would go on to happen in this country.”
A narrator is a useful technique here, because despite the film’s early telegraph of incipient horror, The White Ribbon is Haneke’s most restrained and sedate work. At times, the pacing is almost too glacial, the whole film too stately and clinical. (Christian Berger’s starkly gorgeous cinematography recalls a B&W Days of Heaven and jolts you just as you may start to nod off.)
But if you think about the earlier entries on the Austrian’s resume, you’ll realize that a Haneke movie usually winds up being compelling despite taking its sweet time to convince you that all its underlying unpleasantness is worth it.
In this case, the bad news starts when the doctor takes a nasty spill off his horse. This being a Haneke movie, the fall was no accident, but caused by a wire strung between two trees. Other bad omens: The Baron’s son, Sigi (Fion Mutert) is hanged naked and upside-down in the woods, the barn burns down and a peasant mother is killed in the mill.
Aside from the doctor’s incident, we don’t see any of these events take place. Haneke is only interested in the aftermath. Some villagers swear vengeance and some seek escape from the increasingly “cruel, miserable” village. But everyone suspects. And it’s strongly implied (we could never expect this director to spell everything out) that the community youths are behind it all.
A note on the children: they are strikingly beautiful. (And the child actors, like the entire cast, are flawless.) Despite some early comparisons to Village of the Damned, their wickedness is not painted in broad strokes. “Looking back, I always thought it was strange how Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and her friends walked to the edge of the woods after school instead of running home with the rest of us," says the narrator. That’s about as damning as it gets. At least until the very end when The Teacher (Christian Friedel) shares his suspicions. (The Teacher’s courtship of Eva, the metaphorically named young nanny played by the Leonie Benesch in a standout performance, provides the most comic relief I’ve ever seen in a Haneke flick.)
Haneke rests the blame for the children’s indiscretions, no matter how savage (they torture and nearly blind a retarded child), on their parents. “Our sin punishes our parents’ sin, and their parents’ sin to the third and fourth generations,” the perpetrators write in one note.
Original sin is a very Christian idea. But Haneke indicts religion’s rigid single-mindedness and hypocrisy in the character of the Pastor (Burghart Klausner), an abusive brute who straps his adolescent son to his mattress to keep him from masturbating and then dismisses warnings that his daughter is, we’re led to believe, the ringleader of the town miscreants.
Then there’s The White Ribbon’s greatest, most squirm-inducing scene, in which the Doctor (who for a while looked like the only character over 18 devoid of sinister intentions) breaks things off with his girlfriend, criticizing her as “plain, ugly and reeking of bad breath.” She grimaces and tells him he “must be very unhappy to be so mean.” And then she asks how he could desert her after she’d caught him fingering his daughter and told no one; it’s classic Haneke—a bomb disrupting the kind of silence where you could have heard a pin drop.
That said, what Haneke leaves offscreen is always more disturbing than what he shows. And as in Benny’s Video, Funny Games and Cache, it’s the misdeeds of children that get lodged in the viewer’s skull. And it’s the teenagers in The White Ribbon who would become the disenfranchised young adults most susceptible to Hitler’s spell 15 years later.
In his narration that closes the film, The Teacher says that in the spring of 1916, the German army drafted him to fight in the First World War. But for the people living in The White Ribbon’s pastoral Eden, the battle was already lost.