Cruel games, sadistic impulses, repressed violence and arbitrary acts of torture - Michael Haneke is best known for films that fiercely play on the public’s guilt and unease about an unequal world, often challenging his audience to avert their gaze from the screen while relentlessly stimulating both their fears and voyeuristic pleasures. The effect is profoundly disturbing, despite the fact that Haneke avoids conventional displays of violence, preferring instead to convey brutality through the soundtrack or a look at the victim - the omissions themselves contributing to build an unsettling feeling that is eventually overwhelming.
Violence is yet again the main subject of Haneke’s excellent The White Ribbon, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Masterfully shot in stark black and white, it is the director’s first German-language film since the original Funny Games (1997), and it focuses on the inhabitants of a small rural village in Germany where some inexplicable events and brutal crimes start to occur in the months leading up to the First World War. The story is told by an unreliable narrator, the local school teacher, who is avowedly unsure of the accuracy of his memories. The opening scene sets the tone: the local doctor is severely wounded after his horse trips over a cable deliberately placed on his path. The entire village is baffled and speechless with incomprehension, only the children react in a strangely unemotional manner to the incident. They seem weirdly alert and mature throughout the film, and the only time we hear the sound of a child laughing is at the precise moment we are told that a farmer has hanged himself in the barn. The effect of the chasm between image and sound is unsettling, and it is used by Haneke to illuminate the foreboding of evil. With their lucid, yet eerily secretive faces, the children appear to be more involved in the violent acts than is explicitly revealed.
The White Ribbon is very much a German film, and it is impossible to ignore that the overly quiet and polite children depicted here are the ‘Nazi generation’. But, as Haneke himself insists whenever the question arises in an interview, ‘it is not just a film about a German problem. This is a film about the roots of evil, whether it’s religious or political terrorism’. The film is a didactic play of sorts, but one in which the names of the culprits are as irrelevant as any direct answers or lessons. More important than identifying the criminals is the focus on the characters’ professions and hence their status in the community, with the authority figures revealed to be deluded, repressive or morally corrupt. Outstanding in a cast of mainly German stage actors is Burghart KlauíŸner in the role of the pastor, who forces his two children to wear white ribbons to remind them to stay pure.
It’s the aural landscape that reveals the spirit of the village more than anything else: the silence about the sinister and gruesome events that are taking place is haunting. But along with a finely crafted screenplay, the film’s truly brilliant touch, and what makes this nightmarish fable all the more effective and original, is its stunning black and white photography. It is almost as if Haneke was revisiting old photographs that are slowly unravelling the hidden layers of truths about a generation that would go on to embrace the creed of national socialism.