The White Ribbon,
144 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 6 May 2010.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published in
the May 2010 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)
Austrian Director Michael Haneke is always controversial. His earlier
films have all created great debates, as people try to work out
“whodunit?” or “what does it all mean?” With Haneke, the film doesn’t
finish when the credits roll. It continues outside the cinema, as we
all discuss what we’ve seen for hours, and sometimes days, after the
film ends. Haneke never spoon-feeds his audience. He wants us to work.
Haneke’s previous films include Benny’s
Video (1992), Funny Games made
in German (1997), and remade with an English-speaking cast in the US
(2007), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) and Caché (Hidden, 2004). In each of those
films there are questions that remain unanswered. Some filmgoers find
this frustrating, but others find it challenging and engaging.
The White Ribbon is well and
truly worth the effort. This could be Haneke’s masterpiece.It won the
Palm d'Or for Best Film at Cannes in 2009.
It is certainly his most beautiful film. Haneke and
cinematographer Christian Berger are working in black and white, but
they have used colour film and drained all the colour from it. This
somehow gives the film a richer feel – the blacks are deep and full and
the whites seem to have a texture, like clouds. Each frame seems to
have been exquisitely composed. Sometimes the effect suggests Vermeer’s
works, but painted in black-and-white.
The attention to detail extends to casting, too. Haneke says he met
with over 7000 children over more than six months, in order to find
faces resembling those you see in photographs from the period – the
years immediately before World War I.
The film takes place in a village in northern Germany. A series of
strange events occurs. The village doctor’s horse falls, and the doctor
is seriously injured. A trip-wire is found, so this is not an
accident. A child is abducted and maimed. A woman is killed in
what seems to be an accident in a sawmill. A barn burns down. Someone
destroys a crop of cabbages just before harvest-time. Another child is
abducted. Animals are mutilated. Is it possible that these are all
random happenings, or could one person, or perhaps a group, be
Most of the main characters in the film are archetypes: the doctor, the
teacher, the pastor, the baron, his wife, the steward, the
Farmerfarmer, the midwife, and so on. But the mood becomes more
and more ominous. Always, there’s the feeling that something bad is
about to happen. The adults, and then the children, are increasingly
cruel. The doctor, recovering from his accident, is unaccountably cruel
to his mistress. Only the teacher, and his new love, seem free of the
malign force that appears to be enveloping the village. The pastor’s
punishment of his children is way out of proportion to their
misdemeanours. He makes two of them wear white ribbons, as a symbol of
their lost innocence: hence the film’s title.
All of which leads to what I think is the film’s core concern: the
origins of evil. The film opens with a narrator (the Teacher) telling
us a tale that he says might be based on hearsay – it all happened so
long ago – but which he hopes will “clarify some things that happened
in this country”. The connection with the rise of Fascism is clear. But
Haneke is making a wider point, about “innocence”, and how it can turn
Haneke maintains that there are logical explanations for every crime in
the film. “You just have to look for them,” he says. His theory is that
when you have to search for answers, you go deeper, penetrating the
layers of the film, and using your imagination.
When asked why his films are always so disturbing, Haneke has said that
mainstream cinema and television only touch the surface of things. He
wants his audiences to gaze deep into their humanity. After all, he
asks, even from its beginnings in Greek tragedy, hasn’t drama sought to
examine the depths of human existence?