Set in a Protestant feudal village in Northern Germany in the year prior to the start of World War I, Austrian director Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at the Cannes Film Festival last summer and arrives in town boasting two Oscar nominations, one expected — Best Foreign Language Film — and one not — Best Cinematography.
The cinematography nod is richly deserved. With director of photography Christian Berger, Haneke uses sharp black-and-white and a calculatingly classical shooting style — exactingly framed static medium shots and elegant, subtle, nearly invisible tracking shots — to help establish period. The White Ribbon is not only set early in the last century but looks like it could have been made many decades ago as well, perhaps intentionally evoking such early-to-mid-century European art-film masters as Ingmar Bergman and, especially, Carl Dreyer.
Though narrated, many decades later, by the village's young schoolteacher, the protagonist is the community, or, more specifically, its children (the original title contained an addition: "A German Children's Story"). The village in The White Ribbon is dominated by five central households, the patriarch of each recognized by title rather than name — the Baron, the Steward, the Pastor, the Doctor, the Farmer — with each presiding over multiple children.
The now-elderly narrator introduces the film as a story of "the strange events that occurred in our village," justifying the telling by asserting that "they could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this county."
These strange events begin with the village doctor thrown from his horse, tripped by a mysterious, nearly invisible wire strung between two trees. Later, the wife of a peasant farmer dies in an accident at a sawmill owned by the baron. Later still, unsolved acts of violence are visited upon some of the children: The baron's son is found hung upside down at the mill, stripped and beaten. The developmentally disabled child of the village midwife is found tied to a tree, beaten and bloodied, with a hand-scrawled note containing lines from the Lutheran Bible about a vengeful God.
But other acts of violence are portrayed as mundane: children beaten by their parents for staying out too late; a boy tied to his bed at night to combat the nocturnal temptation of masturbation. And still other, even more sordid acts happen under mild cover.
Haneke presents this ostensibly peaceful society as an arena of economic oppression, incest, spiritual and physical violence, and hypocrisy. Or, as one character protests toward the end, a place filled with "malice, envy, apathy, and brutality."
Most of the violence in the film happens off-screen, and the pace of this already long film is slow, deliberate. The style is as severe and withholding as the village, and the result is that The White Ribbon builds considerable tension and unease among viewers it doesn't alienate entirely.
If there's clarity here, as the narrator promises, Haneke doesn't hold the viewer's hand in pursuit of it. The film's ostensible subject — nothing less than the roots of German fascism — is never made explicit. The children here, roughly ages 8 to 15, are the generation that will rise to power as National Socialism takes root a couple of decades later, and Haneke purports to show the ingrained cause of that national psychosis, with repressive, stern, violent ideals hardening into ideology. (The film's title refers to the article the pastor ties around the wrists or hair of his children to remind them of "innocence and purity.")
There's a whiff of the genre pic here — reviewers have referenced The Village of the Damned (or, more dismissively, Children of the Corn). But Haneke isn't interested in genre mechanics or payoff. The White Ribbon is to atmospheric horror as Haneke's earlier (and, to my mind, slightly better) Caché was to the Hitchockian thriller. He uses the bare bones of the style toward his own political and aesthetic ends, while denying the genre's inherent catharsis or resolution. It's an impressive film — especially visually — but a difficult one.