By Rick Jackson
Written and directed by Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon is a quietly told masterpiece that reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's 1983 classic, Fanny And Alexander. Both films are shot in black and white and deal with stories that are both personal and subjective.
Like another of Haneke's films, Cache (2005), his latest is simple and yet mysterious because you become absorbed by the disturbing series of events that open both films and as you continue to watch you find yourself asking more questions than finding answers to the "why?"that surrounds the townsfolk in a small town in Northern Germany, and the deep dark secretsin the prevailing winds of the past haunted by the narrator's theories, who also happens to be the schoolteacher (Ernst Jacobi). He is played as a much younger man by Christian Fiedel. As you begin to be thrown into the dramatic elements beginning with the town doctor who is injured one morning by a trip wire while riding his horse, you start thinking about it, and the other incidents: the burning of a barn, the murder of a child, and the secret knowledge shared by some of the inhabitants who may be responsible for everything back in 1913-1914 before the outbreak of World War I.
The fact that the film is set in a small place is also part of Haneke's modus operandi because he likes to make movies that are surrounded by spiritual and moral events, especially by a group of children who swear by the upbringing of their parents which have made them superior when compared to other kids who haven't had the same.
In the November/December 2009 issue of Film Comment, Alexander Horwath interviewed Haneke about about his work and how his ideas influenced the making of The White Ribbon. His use of a narrator explains why the story is in flashback and how it is connected years later in the same century when the young men and women of the village are much older, although you only meet them in their younger days when the schoolteacher knew them.
Haneke doesn't base his latest on any book or other adaptation. It is an original screenplay inspired by his own way of thinking of how film today lacks a sense of purpose. By putting his story in the past, he automatically puts whoever sees The White Ribbon in the right frame of mind. You know exactly where he is going and he demands you to keep watching. In this respect, he doesn't have to worry about whether or not you will stay with him. I might add that he is dead on in achieving his goal at making a film with you, the moviegoer with whose undivided attention he gets without the spate of mayhem or sound and fury of car chases and bullets.
The main character, the schoolteacher, is an interesting one because you are hoping he will tell you everything you want to know. I won't say if he does, but it is a role that forces you to wade through all the evidence of his memories and the nice little story he tells you from an important period in his life which you, of course, have to realize it is being told from his point of view. Someone else from that same time might not agree with his. Along the way as you patiently see and hear everything there is to tell, you have to also ask yourself if you believe with each plot thread the veracity of what happened.
Haneke has created an engaging tale and, like Cache, you are equally frustrated and entertained by the plot twists and turns which are all part of the director's personal vision. He wants you to think more of why and, besides, there is nothing wrong with challenging the individual moviegoer for a change.
I have compared The White Ribbon to Fanny and Alexander because the scenes with the pastor's family reminded me of the same discipline meted out by the father in the Bergman film. The father in both films loves his children and it was normal for the children to be treated more strictly.
In The White Ribbon, the father/pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is more tolerant and uncderstanding and it is through the narrator's words we get to know him, and the rest of the town.
Haneke told Horwath in the same article in Film Comment that he makes a film that serves his own interests. At the same time he respects the public and what they have to say about his films.
The White Ribbon remains a quintessential example of the director's craftmanship and storytelling. It is also compelling from start to finish.
It is rated 14A, with the warnings: sexual content and disturbing content.
April 9, 2010
Copyright Rick Jackson 2010