White Ribbon: Village of the Damned

Our London correspondent recommends this challenging film--just don't believe your own eyes!
The White Ribbon
Dir: Michael Haneke
137 mins (b/w)

* * * *

Michael Haneke has always investigated society’s thin veneer of respectability and in this recipient of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, the investigation is of the eighteen months before the outbreak of World War I. In a feudal North German religious community, a series of accidents and disasters affect the normality, such as it is, of an inward looking people presided over by their main employer, the baron. No one is found to be responsible for these disturbing happenings though a collection of children seem to appear, always together, like the children of the damned. The enclosed society punishes its children severely and to make amends, each child is forced to wear a white ribbon to signify, and naively recapture, their purity. There are other family secrets unfolding concerning sexual molestation and ill treatment of wives and housekeepers. But this is not all. The entire story is narrated by the village teacher, now an old man, and his chaste relationship with a young nanny is threaded through the film. His narration might be unreliable, but we are asked to question this in conflict with what we see for ourselves – suggesting that not only is all memory unreliable, but even what we see and experience for ourselves is open to interpretation. Shot in crisp black and white, the bright exterior scenes are in harsh contrast to the imprisoning darkness of the houses’ interiors.

Haneke is an unusual filmmaker in that he operates outside the norms - preferring to concentrate on the darker side of human behaviour without resorting to clich├ęd melodrama. Some of his earlier films, Benny’s Video, The Pianist, Funny Games, and Hidden, dwell on this extensively but force us to confront its depiction in fiction and representation. The White Ribbon bears some resemblance to Rainer Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, a film of Theodore Fontaine’s bleak novel about the subjugation of a young woman by her aristocratic husband. Other comparisons are Carl Dreyer’s‘ Days of Wrath and The Word, both set in austere communities. Here, the power held in the hands of the few in a pious religious community could be seen as a metaphor for the encroaching war and the eventual Nazi rise in the 1930’s, and indeed at the film’s end, the singing congregation is gathered in church and filmed from on high over the altar as if watched by God as a voice announces the outbreak of the war - Archduke Ferdinand had been killed. This is a part thriller and part a study of an unjust social system that’s morally and physically disintegrating though no-one is prepared to confront it. Haneke’s masterful control of the drama leaves you space for contemplation amid the decay and downward spiral, in the end leaving you with the idea of the demon seed.

Lloyd Sellus.

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