Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon screens tomorrow evening at the New York Film Festival; tickets are still available (as of this writing). Sony Pictures Classics will release it theatrically in December.
And that little boy grew up to be…Hermann Goering? The Teutonic, toe-headed tots, tykes and teens that occupy the edges of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, a cold-eyed, cynical and misanthropic whodunit set in the run-up to W.W. I, presumably grow up to become Hitler-heiling adults; Haneke’s film, then, examines how capacities for cruelty, violence and antipathy (of National Socialist proportions!) are formed, as well as who, or what, is to blame for churning out such adorable lil’ monsters.
Filmed in a sharply focused black and white that suggests easy moral clarity, with vivid period details that extend down to the haircuts, the movie chronicles a series of malicious and mostly mysterious incidents that befall a German farming village between 1913 and 1914: an unhorsed doctor; a defenestrated farmer’s wife; a scythed cabbage patch; a brutalized child; a fire; a suicide; an attempted infanticide; another brutalized child. And that’s only what happens publicly: in private, a masturbating pubescent is tied to his bed at night; a doctor takes to examining afterhours his adolescent daughter’s privates; a father stomps his son with work boots; and a stern reverend ties white ribbons around his children’s arms, to remind them through public shaming of the impossible virtue they are expected to uphold daily.
Haneke’s investigative camera is always on the prowl, underscoring his mystery’s “behind closed doors” secrecy: unlike Funny Games, most of the violence is off-screen here; walls and doors often obstruct our view. We are the witnesses to the secret goings-on about town, but as viewers are hardly privileged. (The visual intimacy is contrasted by Haneke’s otherwise cool detachment—which can be a little too distancing.) The director keeps us at the surface, with what lurks beneath made clear only through subtle suggestion.
Presumably, these children, abused sub rosa, are behind the plain-sight crimes, given their constant lurking and Village of the Damned airs; though Haneke is also toying with our assumptions, he overwhelming suggests that violence and repression in culture and family create little barbarians that displace their stifled anger inappropriately—say, on the Jews maybe? Two institutions dominate the town: the church and the farm, which employs half the villagers. As such, Haneke casts blame for the perverse state of affairs on the domineering influence of religion and proto-capitalistic feudalism. Authoritative institutions with draconian moral standards—prone, necessarily, to moral corruption—beget mini-fascists and pave the way for Nazism. Or Islamofascism, or Palinism, or whatever.
That we never discover the guilty party, or parties, makes the film’s final point. Haneke’s failure to answer who’s responsible for all the mischief could be read as an epistemological assertion. But, more likely, it suggests that if no one is guilty, then everyone is: that the problem is not one of individuals, but of societies; that cultural violence demands collective culpability. As a moral, that’s distinctly German—but, unfortunately, not exclusively.