Michael Haneke is an uncompromising filmmaker. In some quarters, he is regarded as a cinematic provocateur. If you’ve seen his masterful Caché (Hidden) or the American-made Funny Games, you know his films eschew tidy endings or explanations. The White Ribbon is no exception. Fearless and profoundly disturbing, Ribbon has already won the Palm d’Or, the big prize, at Cannes, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and it is the odds-on Oscar favorite in this same category.
The film opens on the eve of World War I in a Lutheran village in northern Germany. The breathtaking cinematography captures in pristine black and white images of the dull winter light, of harvesting in the fields, of an enraged man chopping heads of cabbage with a scythe. The bucolic and sinister embroidered on the tapestry of everyday life recalls the work of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer.
The schoolteacher (Friedel), an outsider, recounts decades later his story of the village and his young students and their families. He cautions that his tale may not reflect “the truth in every detail.” Much is hearsay and “a lot of it remains obscure to me even today.”
The townsfolk are identified by their status in the patriarchal community: the landlord, the minister, the doctor, the midwife, the farmer, etc. The film’s subtitle, “A German Children’s Story,” might partly explain why the main young male characters are given symbolic names: Martin, Gustav, and Ferdinand which may echo Luther, Mahler, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. (Other minor characters are Adolf and Eva.)
The young are dark witnesses when strange events occur. In contrast, their parents engage in ritual punishment of the children and each other — as incest, adultery, sexual abuse, and the use of the symbolic white-ribbon armband for purity — to discourage the boy Martin (Proxauf) from masturbating. When a child with Down syndrome is kidnapped and sexually assaulted, a note invoking the Biblical curse of “the sins of the father on the son” is found nailed to a tree.
And in the midst of this, the guns of August 1914 signal the start of the First World War.
Haneke told the German weekly Der Spiegel that his film “uses the example of German fascism to talk about the mental preconditions for every type of terrorism, whether it comes from the right or the left, and whether it’s politically or religiously motivated.”
And while there aren’t Jewish residents in the village, history tells us the Nazis used Luther’s controversial writings on Jews — and even Grimm’s fairy tales — in their propaganda in the next great war. It isn’t coincidence that Martin Luther’s composition, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is sung as the village comes together one last time. — Gregg Barrios
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