The White Ribbon is an instant classic of European cinema. Filmed in black and white and set in a rural village in northern Germany circa 1912, it may remind you of early Bergman, Buuel, and other great European filmmakers of the black-and-white era, but it is an homage to none of them. Michael Haneke, at age 67, has crafted a brilliantly original film. So authentic is the mise-en-scne, every element seems to have come out of a time machine. None of the actors in this film will be recognizable to American audiences, but many of them have faces like those that can be found in the austere and melancholy etchings and woodcuts of Albrecht Drer. Haneke’s decision to do without a musical sound track adds to the intensity of our aesthetic experience.
Haneke tells us that he thought about the screenplay for 20 years. The starting point of his film was the idea of a “church choir in Protestant northern Germany before the first world war.” The children in the choir, who “had internalized the moral imperatives that they’d been taught by their parents, then judged their parents according to the moral imperatives that they preached.” Along the way, another idea seems to have worked its way into Haneke’s conception—namely, that these children would grow up to be the first generation of Germans to become Nazis. Life in the bleak German village that Haneke has created is beset by inexplicable acts of malevolence.
Haneke has a reputation in Europe for “cerebral horror films” but he is best known to Americans for The Piano Teacher and Cach (or Hidden). The former was a psychological study of a sadomasochistic woman whose perverse activities may have shocked moviegoers but were a field day for the theoretical speculations of Lacanian psychoanalysts. What we saw on the screen was real and surreal at the same time. It was an unflinching performance by Isabelle Huppert as an instructor at the Vienna conservatory who comes to a career impasse and is driven in despair to act out her sexual fantasies. That conjunction of despair and perversion opened a window into the human condition.
Haneke’s other box office success in the States was Cach. Set in Paris and starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, the film followed the conventions and had the impact of a psychological thriller. The French couple, identifiably of the haute bourgeoisie, discover that they are under surveillance. The paranoid tension mounts. Every event seems to have sinister significance. The couple’s relationship cracks under the pressure. But then, instead of resolution in which the malefactor is identified and the strands of the mystery come together and make sense, Haneke leaves everything up in the air. In fact, the harder one struggles to find the “hidden” solution, the more obvious it becomes that there is none. You realize that Haneke intends to create your bafflement. Cach is not a postmodern version of narrative that even if nonlinear can be sorted out and understood as a deeper version of storytelling. Haneke has played a bait and switch game on his audience. They thought they were getting a mystery but instead he gave them mystification. If some moviegoers were frustrated, most of the serious critics liked it.
Michael Haneke is a fiercely uncompromising artist. Cach was not an act of caprice. As a longtime student of psychology and philosophy, he had mounted an attack on the very structure of storytelling and on our settled expectations of how human experience is ordered by narrative. He sees the world through the lens of psychology but with the doubts of a philosopher.
Whatever the merits of the mysterious Cach, it was a useful preparation for The White Ribbon. One can infer from what Haneke tells us that he distrusts all historical accounts and particularly those in historical films. Haneke maintains that only politicians have answers. He seems to mean this in its deepest sense so that for him, the ordering of historical events in a conventional narrative structure is inevitably a form of propaganda. His belief is that films should not claim “to depict or represent a reality that none of us can know.” He sees film as an artifact rather than a reliable construction. The White Ribbon then is his creative artifact, a history without historicity.
It recounts the mystery of the malevolent events in the village, raises questions, but gives few answers. The film is told by a narrator, the schoolteacher, an outsider who comes from a nearby village. He has grown old and he concedes at the outset that his memory may be failing and that he knows many of the events that he recounts only by hearsay. He is the antithesis of the omniscient narrator, but he believes that if one understands what happened in the village, one may discover in that microcosm what happened later in “our country.” The schoolteacher, we will eventually learn, thinks that his schoolchildren were responsible for the malevolent events and that they were led by a daughter and a son of the Protestant minister.