Michael Haneke fascinates more than any other filmmaker. Whilst I wouldn’t consider him one of my favourite directors, he certainly has the gift of dragging me into his world and making me watch films at his level. As such I thought it was time to finally finish his filmography, whilst I’ve seen a nice chunk of his work, there was still a big white whale I hadn’t yet watched. That white whale just so happened to be his most celebrated film – the 2-time Oscar nominated drama The White Ribbon. I finally sat down to watch the film and what followed was potentially the greatest 144 minutes of my life.
Set in a fictional Protestant German village just before the start of World War I, the film is narrated by the town’s school teacher who tells the story of the peculiar and strange events that occurred in the town over a 2 year period. These strange events include the injury of important town members, building fires, weird accidents and brutal bullying of children. The town is run by 3 powerful men, all of whom have absolute control over the people and determine exactly what the town does. The film follows these 3 men and their children, and shows the impact these events have on the community as whole.
What makes The White Ribbon instantly enticing is the simplicity of the film. Originally conceived as a 6-hour mini-series, Haneke struggled to get funding and instead transformed it into a film. The mini-series roots are still felt though and actually work at enhancing the film. The narration is key to the film’s success, it opens the film and perfectly sets the scene for the what is about to follow. The film is much more engaging because of the school teacher’s casual narration. Because the narrator is now an old man, it makes us feel like his grandchildren as he recalls these events. This makes the film more involving and grounds it in reality, also making the strange incidents seem more like a black comedy than a depressing drama.
Because the film never feels like a weighty drama, it is easy to get caught up in proceedings. Normally a 144 minute black-and-white foreign-language period-set drama would feel like a daunting task, but that is not the case with The White Ribbon. It is extremely easy to watch thanks to Haneke’s superb script. It still carries the blunt and often nihilistic views that he has, but by the film being a black comedy (at least to this reviewer) it makes his words jump from the screen and their meaning much more enjoyable to unlock. The town’s craziness and the power these characters have make for some wonderfully brutal scenes and lines of dialogue that you’d honestly feel bad for giggling at if the film wasn’t so engaging.
The black comedy is what makes it instantly engaging, but it is the drama and ominous undertones that’ll make it stick in your mind. Haneke has mastered the mixture of overt meaning and subtly. He gives you the biggest jigsaw piece but then encourages you to put the rest together. The White Ribbon is his best example of this. It is easy to work out that the film is essentially about the creation of evil, with Haneke clearly believing it is bred not born. But to understand why he thinks that will require you to ponder the film at length. I’m still in the process of this. It is that subtly that will endear the film to me and have it playing in my head for a long time to come.
Haneke spent almost a year casting the children for this film, his perfectionism in casting this kids shows as he has certainly captured the best possible performances for the characters each young actor plays. Whilst the children don’t get huge amounts of time or dialogue, they are the crux of the story and they need to be as powerful and as menacing as humanly possible. Any scene in which a group of children is on screen fills the audience with foreboding, a sense of unease. This is thanks to the young actors, with almost all of them portraying their evil bastard wonderfully.
It is the adults though that contribute the most. Whilst the children are the ones stirring the town’s pot, it is how the adults react that drives the plot. The 3 male leads are all fantastic. Each character is powerful and influences in different ways. Burghart Klaußner is the one that is most instantly grabbing as the town’s pastor. He is a quiet sort of powerful, but how he moulds and challenges his children is disturbing and confronting. It is a rather brilliant understated performance. The baron is more overt with his power, he alone controls the town’s money and jobs and has the greatest effect on way of life. It requires a larger than life performance and Ulrich Tukur nails it, with him only needing the few scenes he has been given. The doctor, played by Rainer Bock, doesn’t come into the film until the second half but his impact is felt almost instantly. Whilst he is lovely to the children of the town, he is destructive, cold and heartless to the adults and his affect is much more damaging than the other 2 leaders. Bock’s performance is calculating and absorbing, his scenes with his mistress will drop your jaw to floor.
From a technical standpoint, The White Ribbon is yet again a renowned success. It is perhaps the most celebrated aspect of the film, which resulted in it getting a cinematography and when it lost it was followed by a lot of internet complaining. Shot in colour and converted to black and white, the film has an oddly bright look that I don’t recall seeing before for a B&W film. This is all because of Christian Berger’s brilliant lighting inventions and processes which he uses. Berger is the utmost professional and one of the best in his field. He has shown time and time again that the photography skills he has are immense. Berger’s eye for detail is almost unparalleled and The White Ribbon is a haunting and beautiful motion picture thanks mostly to his excellent work.
All of this comes back to Haneke. The auteur’s film is courageous and adventurous, disturbing and uncompromising. It is the work of a glorious filmmaker operating at his prime. Haneke writes with vigour, as if energised by his subject and his approach. He crafts and moulds a screenplay dripping with intelligence whilst also being absorbing and involving. He makes you hang on every word, he wants you to wonder and predict what word may fall next. Haneke wants to frighten you and shock you with brutal violence and unsettling imagery. Whilst simultaneously making you laugh out of loud with black as night comedy and encouraging his actors to deliver their words in an outlandish fashion. His film is grounded and human but told with the love and care of fable, it is a tall-tale handed down generation after generation that still has as much relevance as the time in which it is set.
And just like Michael Haneke’s story, The White Ribbon will no doubt be handed down generation after generation as it a phenomenally structured, directed, written, photographed and acted piece of art. An astute and absolute classic.