Cruel parents create cruel children. That is the moral of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon. The object of the title is a device used as part of a technique implemented by the village minister to remind his children of purity. It’s no coincidence that children in a German village, whom will be adults when the rise of the Nazi party occurs, are shown wearing white armbands symbolizing purity. Haneke is not at work to simply tell the story of the psychological birth of the Nazi movement, rather he want to study and dissect what motivates terrorists and those who kill from a nationalist motivation.
In a small northern German village, about a year before World War I begins, a series of premeditated attacks occur. What sets things off is when the village doctor is thrown from his horse as the result of an near invisible wire strung across his property. Authorities find the wire vanishes over night and no one saw anybody tie it up there. The film is very fragmented and jumping from household to household, focusing on the interactions of parents and children. Like most Haneke films, he keeps things very ambiguous. He knows what to state outright and what to hint at.
Someone burns down a barn. A child is murdered. Another child is beaten severely and strung up in the town’s sawmill. I was reminded of Haneke’s 2005 picture, Cache, where the protagonist is presented with a mystery of someone filming the exterior of his flat for hours and hours, then mailing him the tape. Haneke cultivates mystery, presents us with plausible suspects, and then ends the film. A very similar technique is used here, so if you are someone who likes things wrapped neatly, this isn’t a film for you. However, if you enjoy philosophically contemplating the nature of evil and acts of tragedy visited on seemingly normal, undeserving people this is a fascinating picture.
German society at this time lives and dies on hierarchy and adherence to strict religious and moral tenets. In life you serve the land baron and thresh his fields, you go to church, and you never step out of place. So, for such chaotic acts to begin in the village is a cause for the erosion of propriety. As Haneke peers under the roofs of the villagers we quickly see no one submits to this system out of honest belief, they submit because they are beaten into it. What Haneke has done is make a film much less about the specifics of German society and about our own contemporary global culture of cruelty.