Immaculately crafted in beautiful black-and-white and entirely absorbing through its longish running time, Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” nonetheless proves a difficult film to entirely embrace. Stressing, as usual, a conspicuously dim view of the world, the Austrian writer-director here spins a mysterious story about a series of untoward events in a rural village in pre-World War I Germany to advance the notion that malice is arguably the dominant human trait. Haneke’s eminence will provide automatic access to Western art cinemas (Sony Classics acquired North American rights on the eve of Cannes) and prestige Euro tube slots, but there is a medicinal quality to the film that suggests a limit to its appeal even among the faithful.
Perhaps closest to his two-part 1979 TV film “Lemmings” that scrutinizes the ills passed down from generation to generation, but similar as well to a number of his other pictures, including his 2004 international hit “Cache” (Hidden), in its refusal to clearly solve the deadly central mystery, this ironically titled film goes beyond its general analysis of humanity to implicitly suggest some tendencies in the German character and culture that could point to certain developments in the subsequent three decades.
“The White Ribbon” is structured around a string of misfortunes that befall citizens of Eichwald, an agricultural community where half the population works for the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and where the stern Protestant pastor (Burghart Klaussner) wields a strong influence, especially on the children. In the opening scene, the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is severely injured when his horse stumbles over what is soon discovered to be a trip wire someone deliberately stretched between two trees.
Not long after, the wife of a farm worker dies from a fall through the Baron’s faulty barn loft floor; blaming the Baron, the woman’s hot-headed son slashes the boss’s cabbage crop, and the Baron’s son is found beaten and tied upside down in the barn.
Marbled in between such occurrences are slashing glimpses of village life, including the pastor’s brutal caning of his children over a mild disturbance; a woman’s frustration at a musical accompanist who can’t keep up; and a little boy’s questioning of his sister about death, in the course of which he learns that his own mother, supposedly away on a long trip, is no longer living. The rare expression of genuine childhood innocence and good will is occasionally tolerated, but more often squashed, by the grown-ups, but even children’s own true nature comes increasingly under a cloud, to the point where “The White Ribbon” feels like a thematic companion piece to “Lord of the Flies.”
The only warm narrative thread is the endearingly bashful courtship between the pudding-faced young school teacher (Christian Friedel) and 17-year-old Eva (Leonie Benesch), who works as a nanny at the Baron’s estate. The ever-so-gradual blossoming of their romance is a tickling delight, even though one suspects Haneke will throw a monkeywrench into it.
As the harvest season passes into winter and then toward what one eventually realizes will be the start of World War I in the summer of 1914, the village’s misdeeds morph into genuine atrocities, resulting in mutual distrust among longtime neighbors and the arrival of outside police. There is enough potential guilt to be spread around among a number of possible culprits, but this remains a whodunit cloaked both in the mists of time and in the collective nature of the human beings under investigation, and hence, a mystery not of suspense but of suspicion.
The villagers here live a mostly isolated existence far more redolent of 19th century life than of the mechanized 20th century that will soon engulf them, and the film meticulously conveys both the physical realities of the times and of the moral strictures under which almost no family is a stranger to child abuse, malicious behavior, adultery and premature death. About the only leading character immune from such a stigma is the childless one, the schoolteacher who, in a welcoming older voice (Ernst Jacobi), also serves as the sorry tale’s narrator.
Craft contributions are superb in every respect, notably production designer Christoph Kanter’s simple, geographically coherent rendering of the village and Christian Berger’s detail-filled monochromatic lensing. Only music is that briefly heard from natural sources within the film.
The pic’s full German title translates to “The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story.”