We don’t go to Michael Haneke films for comfort, but to gaze through a glass darkly. That vision -- tense, provocative and unnerving -- is on full display in “The White Ribbon,” which could be considered a culmination of this difficult director’s brilliant career.
Set in an ordinary German village on the eve of World War I, the film looks at the children who would survive that war and grow into the generation that would bend to Hitler’s sway. Shot in black and white, which serves as both a statement and a style, Germany’s foreign language Oscar entry has rightfully been collecting critical acclaim since it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Here the dramatic interplay of innocence, evil and human behavior so often on Haneke’s radar has been joined by themes of guilt and responsibility. He’s woven all this into a mysterious, often eerie parable that attempts to explain the seeds of Nazism. That the setting is a seemingly idyllic farming community is not accidental.
But accidents are very much at the heart of “The White Ribbon.” As the narrator of this tale explains as the film begins, there were a series of strange events years ago in his village that “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
Ernst Jacobi, our narrator here, affects a grandfatherly, almost apologetic tone that could lead you to believe that he will fill in all the missing pieces for us. Don’t be fooled. This is a film that requires concentration -- a don’t blink, don’t breathe approach will serve the viewer well.
The world we’re dropped into by cinematographer Christian Berger, whose work with Haneke includes two of the director’s better known films, “Caché" and “The Piano Teacher,” is both beautiful and harsh. The farmland with its rolling fields of wheat stands in lush contrast to the families in the region, hard folk tied to a rigid Protestant vision of morality where pleasures are few, forgiveness is slow in coming and retribution rules the day.
“The White Ribbon” is told from the point of view of the village schoolteacher, with Christian Friedel playing him as a young man on-screen and Jacobi’s voice his latter-day, much wiser and reflective self. The story is framed by the family life of all those who make up the region, a perfect socio-economic mix of the Baron, the Pastor, the Steward, the Doctor, the Farmer and the Schoolteacher.
It all begins when the village doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown after his horse runs into a trip wire set on the road to his home. After school that day, the village children gather at the doctor’s house. When someone spots them outside, innocent faces smile and explain that they’re just there to see after their classmate Anna (Roxane Duran), the doctor’s teenage daughter.
But their politeness is eerie; the way they move through the village in groups suddenly seems sinister. Haneke is just starting to sow the seeds of mistrust, and like any good provocateur, he soon has us suspecting everyone in town of secret schemes and dark deeds.
Next, the farmer’s wife is killed, the Baron’s son is beaten, an infant catches a worrisome fever, and on it goes. There are no suspects and there are few clues, though the governing principle seems to be punishment.
While the accidents drive the action, they are also there to give context to the most significant question posed by “The White Ribbon”: What is it about someone’s childhood that creates the adults they become? Haneke, who wrote the screenplay with veteran writer Jean-Claude Carrière (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Valmont”) consulting, puts the responsibility on both parents and society as a whole, rather than any genetic predisposition, which leads you back to the question of who is minding the children.
In “White Ribbon,” Haneke is, and it is to the children he always returns -- building scenes in such a way that you wonder are they responsible? Is it all or just a few? Planned or happenstance? And hovering over it all -- if it is the children, then why?
Before we can condemn them, the director begins opening the doors to their homes and the texture of their lives: the indifference in one household, the denial in another; for others, it’s neglect, or brutality. Harshness and humiliation seem the guiding principals of parenting here.
The schoolteacher, an excellent Friedel, represents kindness in this unkind land, thinking the best of everyone until he no longer can. His courtship of another gentle soul, Eva (Leonie Benesch), a nanny in the Baron’s employ, also provides needed relief from the film’s somewhat unrelenting grimness. Meanwhile, the overbearing Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) represents the church’s role in creating an environment of fear and retribution.
The pastor’s ritualistic and sadistic punishment of his teenagers -- Klara and Martin, very powerfully played by Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf -- gives the film its name: the white ribbon they must wear to remind them that purity is their goal and that thus far they’ve failed. Of course, there are beatings, and self-righteous tirades too. Their crime? They were late for dinner.
That the story plays out in black and white makes things easier in a way -- the images have the beauty of old photos. That look, coupled with the faces (the director reportedly saw more than 7,000 children to try to capture the era), gives the film the feel of an artifact, a historical document.
History hovers over “White Ribbon” with the force of impending doom. These children will inherit this world of sin and sorrow, and the consequences will be catastrophic. Whatever responsibility we might feel for future generations after seeing a cautionary tale like this one, well that’s just one of the questions Haneke leaves us to figure out.