Michael Haneke unearths the jarring cycles of life and death, connecting menacing physical landscapes with man’s breaking mental terrain. The Austrian director slowly unveils these patterns, linking the changing seasons with shifting ideologies and fears, juxtaposing natural order and man-made sin to personify the instinctual brutality residing under the surface. Told as a gap-riddled omniscient memory, Haneke’s The White Ribbon meticulously deconstructs the actions and reactions of a small German town (existing in seeming normalcy immediately preceding WWI) with this glaring attention to both natural and psychological detail. Envy, greed, and sloth rot the communal apple at its core, weaving an epic tapestry of mistrust surrounding the relationship between individual and community. Relying on the assumptions of human behavior, Haneke slowly erodes the face of tradition and tranquility to show a darker unmentioned reality hiding in the shadows, one founded on the brutal bastardization of family and faith. So secrets and lies beget retribution, and revolting and revulsive acts come and go, inevitably saying more about the collective than the perpetrators committing them.
Bypassing standard narrative conventions, Haneke divulges symbols and themes by spending long passages of time with his many characters, inspecting their daily routines for gaps and fissures in morality, tying each with a specific act of indifference or guilt. And something is certainly amiss, as Haneke’s brilliantly poised camera catches glimpses of chilling menace in the corners of every frame. Whether it’s two older children being scolded by their preacher father, or a vengeful son hacking away at his employer’s lettuce patch, these actions feel fatefully connected to the cultural environment on display. The striking black and white visuals heighten every subtle movement and sound, framing characters in wide vistas flanked by trees and fields, hallowed by bleached out skies. Starkness lives and breathes in between the edits, whispering warnings to a community diving headfirst down an ideological rabbit hole.
While Haneke focuses on the subversion’s of adulthood, The White Ribbon achieves it’s most devastating dichotomy of horror and purity through the eyes of children, characters existing largely on the tragic periphery. These kids astutely watch their parents and neighbors go about their business, soaking in the wtinessed anger, aggression, and violence like water to a sponge, ultimately continuing the cycle of degradation. Their misguided and fragmented behavior proves the future is not bright for this town, and in turn Germany as a nation. And even though the initial assumptions of guilt planted in the horrific opening scenes are never completely unfounded, Haneke is more interested in the subtle decline of justice than solving the many specific crimes. Most of the motivations behind the many indiscretions are entirely familiar, lessening the impact of specifically heinous moments. But the overall mosaic artfully constructs fear and suffering on both a personal and epic level.
The White Ribbon begins and ends like a dream, told through haunted voice-over narration by the town’s mild-mannered teacher (Christian Friedel). It’s a last gasp of memory wrapped in uncertainty, but more than anything it’s a warning. The Teacher’s words drift into the either, lost in the cloudy haze of a massive historical event about to change the world, foreshadowing an even greater homegrown evil on the horizon. But Haneke’s telling examination of human and mother nature is far more complex than a simple line of terrible dominos falling into place. The White Ribbon confronts a terrible cycle of indifference, showing the seeds of national destruction sewn by the farmers, teachers, pastors, and parents themselves, infecting the essence of youthful compassion through apathy and fear, slowly circulating poison into the children’s moral water supply. This lethal cocktail is not specific to Germany, but universal in scope and potency, invariably festering for generations to come.