Has there ever been an acclaimed director as inhospitable to his viewers’ well-being as Michael Haneke? For a quarter-century, the Austrian auteur has been mining a dark vein of violence beneath contemporary life. His 1987 debut feature, The Seventh Continent—a mindbending chronicle of a family that commits suicide—set the agenda, and his subsequent films have insistently thrust horrific acts at us: from Isabelle Huppert mutilating her own genitals in The Piano Teacher, to Arno Frisch enacting his fascination with a pig-slaughter video upon an unsuspecting girl in Benny’s Video, to the two-hour nightmare of Funny Games, in which a vacationing couple and their young son are set upon by two posh-seeming young men who knock at the door, asking to borrow an egg, and proceed to subject the family to a weekend of torture and death. A brazenly monstrous quality pervades Haneke’s work, putting viewers in an uncomfortable bind. You can’t look, but you can’t look away.
At first glance, The White Ribbon—a winner at Cannes and the Golden Globes—seems a major departure. Haneke began as a television writer, and not only have all his prior films had contemporary settings, but usually a TV is on somewhere, with the news bringing global chaos to background the domestic misery up front. The White Ribbon, on the other hand, is set in Eichwald, a fictional German village, in 1913. Shot in black and white, paced with deliberate slowness, the film exudes an austere restraint that evokes Robert Bresson. Yet continuities abound. Haneke’s plot arises from a series of mysterious and violent episodes in the village. A horse stumbles on a trip wire strung between two trees, badly injuring its rider. Two children are kidnapped and brutally victimized. A barn is set on fire. A voice-over narration by Eichwald’s mild-mannered young teacher (Christian Friedel) looks back at these events from the perspective of many decades later, hoping to “clarify things that happened in our country.”
But what things? And clarify them how, exactly? The teacher, we learn, was thirty-one at the time, and since he sounds like an eighty-year-old, we infer he’s narrating from around 1960—a time when Germans were belatedly beginning to reckon with their Nazi past. Further math suggests that the village’s children, ten years old in 1913, will be in their thirties when Hitler comes to power. This timeline makes the violent events in Eichwald much more ominous, and raises the inevitable question: What kind of childhood created Nazis?
A wretched one, unsurprisingly. Relations in the village take shape within a patriarchal power system run by fear and humiliation. The film’s most chilling scene shows the village pastor (Burghart Klaussner) reprimanding his children for a minor infraction, subjecting them to a wrathful tirade as they stare in mute abjection. His voice quivering with righteous rage, he announces they will be whipped, then forced to wear a white ribbon as a symbol of their forsaken innocence. In the following scene we hear their yelps of pain as the lashings are meted out behind a closed door.
Such portrayals hew to a psycho-historical interpretation propounded most notably by Alice Miller, the German psychoanalyst whose writings about childhood tie Nazi murderousness to the cruelty of a traditional German upbringing. Haneke paints a grim picture of life in a village where children address their fathers as “Herr Vater,” and routinely bow their heads to kiss father’s hand for forgiveness. The form of address conspicuously conflates the roles of priest and family father, suggesting a male authority that is sacred and unchallengeable—and a religion more attuned to punishment than salvation. Family politics parallel the larger politics of the village, ruled by a hierarchy of farm steward, doctor, pastor, baron. Violence and intimidation run the system, and male emotion is systematically suppressed; when a peasant farmer’s wife dies in an accident, his grief occurs out of our sight, blocked off by a wall. A boy suspected of masturbation has his hands tied to his bed every night.
Haneke has commented that his film aims at a generalized pathology of evil, yet specific foreshadowings of German fascism are everywhere. Two police inspectors speak lines (“We have ways of making you talk”) straight from Hollywood’s Gestapo lexicon. The sacralizing of male authority and obedience to it anticipates the pledge each German citizen would make as part of the Führerprinzip (“leadership principle”), the Nazi ideology by which Hitler ruled above the law. The parental exclamations of self-pity at having to beat their children anticipate Himmler’s notorious exhortations to the SS to harden themselves against the violence they must commit. Even the village’s name, Eichwald, gives off Nazi echoes, an amalgam of Eichmann and Buchenwald.
And behind it all, as behind fascism, lies a depthless corruption. The doctor secretly molests his own daughter; the baron imports Polish serfs; the pastor fulminates vehemently against the teacher when he digs too deeply into private affairs. A fulcrum of rectitude is provided by the baron’s wife, who, speaking as a moral Cassandra, announces her intention to leave Eichwald forever, taking her children with her: she will not have them grow up, she says, in an atmosphere “dominated by malice, envy, apathy, and brutality.”
As he did in Caché (2005), Haneke employs the form of the whodunit, then sinks the mystery in a welter of ambiguity, so that by the end, we have suspicions and suspects, but no answers; nothing is solved. Haneke is after something much bigger than who strung that trip wire. German reckonings with the Holocaust have proceeded from a focus on Opfer memorials—the victims—to Täter, or perpetrator memorials. The White Ribbon is a study in the formation of the Täter mentality. Who is responsible for the harms that befall the village? Pretty much everyone.
Haneke follows a long tradition of German artists who took on the punishing repressiveness of Word War I–era German life. I’m thinking of Robert Musil’s 1906 novel (and Volker Schlöndorff’s 1966 film) The Confusions of Young Torless, or Georg Grosz’s 1926 painting Stutzen der Gesellschaft (Pillars of Society): inquiries into evil that condemned an entire social order, treating it with burning sarcasm or heartbreaking pathos. Haneke is much cooler. Where Musil saw the imposition of a brutal social order upon the sensitive goodness of youth, and Grosz aimed his sarcasm at crass corruption, Haneke operates, as always, with clinical detachment, calmly tracing an inexorable fatalism. His film is not meant to move, but to appall. And to unsettle. Sadism and a rampant death wish; grief and suicide; mass bullying: these cruel realities are interspersed with gorgeous shots of fields of wheat swaying in the breeze and field workers scything in harmony, as church bells peal and a boys’ choir angelically sings “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Such mythic images of pastoral serenity create harshly ironic juxtapositions; Haneke pushes us toward a kind of ima-gistic reverie, only to pull us back to the reality of secrecy, corruption, and pain. At times, The White Ribbon seems only a step or two away from cheesy melodrama, its stonefaced children evoking The Omen or Children of the Corn. It’s like a mix of Ingmar Bergman and M. Night Shyamalan. Strangely, it works.
The White Ribbon is a nearly perfect film from a director I have never liked. Haneke remains humorless and misanthropic, with a streak of the tendentious running straight through the center of his work, and his forbidding fantasies of a total unraveling—familial, social, civilizational—exact a punishing toll on a viewer. For once, though, the director’s misanthropy seems anything but gratuitous; and his careful study of collective moral deformity discovers, in the white ribbon and its promise of purifying violence, an “innocence” forged in shame, chagrin, and suffering: a corrupt lie at the heart of the Nazi nightmare. This is the film Haneke has been waiting his whole career to make.