In Theaters: The White Ribbon
Shot in color and then scaled back to a matted black and white, the look of The White Ribbon is rarely one of stark contrasts; rather it is composed from an infinite palette of shades of grey. Everything about the film's masterfully executed aesthetic suggests harmony, order, the absence of extremes, exquisite deliberation; initially a soothing technique -- so pleasing in its symmetries -- director Michael Haneke teases dread and uncertainty from classical form. By the end of 144 unsparing minutes, a sort of seduction has occurred: the frame, again almost oppressively flawless, is filled with the German villagers, neatly arrayed and at perfect attention during their weekly church service. The choir children sing like angels. But did I just see what I think I saw? And what I didn't see?
The White Ribbon opens with the film's most direct invocation of its intent: "I don't know if this story is true in all respects," an older narrator (Ernst Jacobi) intones. "Some of it I only know in hearsay." He continues, implying that the strange events he witnessed (and heard about) in a small north German village just before the outbreak of World War I might hold some clue as to what happened to the German people, might "cast some light on the goings-on in this country." Duly instructed, the audience settles in for a comfortable stint as judge and jury. What unfolds is a discursive but well-paced portrait of a community seemingly infected with evil from within -- a cross between John Wyndham's sci-fi classic_The Midwich Cuckoos_ (adapted twice as Village of the Damned) and Dogville -- that even when it is at its most scoldingly obvious resists easy answers and withholds critical information.
Haneke focuses on laying out, with an almost lyrical idiosyncracy, the baroque ecosystem and interrelations of his archetypical, simple village folk, most of whom are given titles rather than names. (Indeed, we are not immediately sure who among the villagers is the narrator; Haneke seems to make a point of having him enter his own story -- as The Schoolteacher, played by Christian Friedel -- only on the director's deliberate cue.)
Proceeding with the care and confidence of an epic novelist, Haneke makes connections through action, not exposition, moving with authority from the introduction of the village doctor (Rainer Bock), who is felled by a tripwire stretched across the patch of grass through which he regularly travels on horseback, to the punishment of the pastor's (Burghart Klaussner) children, who for their unidentified trespasses have a white ribbon, symbolizing the purity they must strive for, tied around their arms. "Punishment purifies," he tells them, and boy howdy, the Protestant ethic and its kink-inflected perversions could not be more clearly stated. He later tells his son Martin (a young actor with haunted eyes named Leonard Proxauf) that masturbation will, through a serious of physical and spiritual machinations, lead directly to his death; he is henceforth tied to his bed at night. A submissive (or raging masochist) is born!
Despite all that purifying punishment, the "accidents" and random tragedies and abasements continue: a worker woman falls mysteriously to her death; several children are kidnapped brutalized; a young girl is molested by her father; a barn erupts in blazes. Some of them, it is suggested, were perpetrated by a group of diabolically well-mannered, watchful, hive-minded children. Yet Haneke's aspirations to a high literary style and scope have a limit, as the film's unresolved structure makes clear. The film ends almost as soon as World War I erupts: "Now everything was going to change," the narrators says. You know the rest, Haneke implies, and of course we do. Yet his choice to end the film with the ultimate ellipsis, in its failure to organize not what is to come but what just passed, impoverishes what could have been not only a masterful piece of craft but a masterpiece of historical storytelling.