A White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

“When you were little, your Mother tied a white ribbon in your hair or around your arm. Its white colour was to remind you of innocence and purity.”


Discussed on a previous episode of ‘The Simon and Jo Film Show’, ‘The White Ribbon’ was the winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes ’09, and as we build up to Cannes 2010, it seems the appropriate time to raise a few points on this film. As always – and especially with this film – the scope of this film is much larger than the small section I will explore. I only saw this film once – at the good ol’ Barbican – and am keen to watch it again … but, this is additionally the first Michael Haneke film I have seen and currently the sweet 10-film boxset (not available in USA by the looks of things…) has been spotted for £40 in Fopp… time will tell …

Definition of the Past

The film is set in rural Germany in a small village. It purposefully pre-dates both World Wars and within the community most people – excpt perhaps the children – all have defined roles. A doctor, a schoolteacher, pastor, baron, baroness, midwife, etc. Then, in a completely still shot, we see a horse ride towards camera – and as it crosses the space between a gateway, it flips over. A wire had been set, purposefully, to trip up the horse with the doctor riding. We ask the question who set this trap? The invisible nature of evil parrallels with the invisibility of the wire set as a trap. We don’t know why it is there, we don’t know who planned it – but we do know it was a person with intent to hurt.

The Pastors children – Klara and Martin – are portrayed early on as incredibly sinister and, ultimately, badly behaved. The Pastor ties small white ribbons to their arms to remind them of their purity – but uses a cane to sanction the children for trivial offences. In one incredibly sensitive scene, the Pastor learns of Martin beginning to masturbate and tells him the horrors that will bestow him if he continues – and then he ties his hands to the bed frame. The group of children Klara and Martin walk around with are equally dubious – we question their morals and, potentially, their involvement with the crimes in the village.
A Narration of Events
The narrator is a school teacher who recounts events as he fell in love with a Nanny – Eva. What is interesting, is that the first line from him discredits his relaiability, stating something along the lines of “I can’t remember exactly what happened but…”. His role is in education – it could be assumed that it is his role to educate the children in the village and potentially he takes partial responsibility for the childrens misdemeanors. The fact-of-the-matter is that the adults are as corrupt (if not moreso) than the children. So, while Martin is ‘educated’ in how masturbation is wrong – the Doctor completely humiliates the midwife – a relationship he conducted prior to him deceased wife’s death. Additionally, the Doctor sexually abuses his own daughter.

Set in a Historical Context

I remember reading somewhere that Spielberg chosen to shoot ‘Schindlers List’ in black and white because whenever he was told about the holocaust and educated about World War II, it was always through black and white photographs and footage. In a potentially similar way, ‘The White Ribbon’ is shot in black and white though, as I heard through Filmspotting, this was due to a production issue – the company wanted a version in colour to show on TV (???) so, Haneke shot the film in colour and then took the colour out in post-production. It does give the film a historical weight and importance.

The film ends as Archeduke Franz Ferdinand is assasinated and war is declared and our narrator, the school teacher, leaves the village. The focus is how the predating of this film is to show how these children became the fascists of World War II – a vague attempt at understanding the twisted morals of the Nazi’s. This makes a great talking-point post-viewing.

Personally, I couldn’t help but compare this to M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’. Though less art-house, both films focus upon the corrupt attempts authority have to control the children in their care. In a strange way, the limited palette of Shyamalan and Haneke also strike true – whilst personally I prefer the fog and marshy space surrounding Shyamalans village opposed to Hanekes cold and shiny village. The colour that attracts ‘those that we don’t speak of’  becoming void in Shyamalans village create a fascinating yellow and green colour scheme, whilst the black and white coolness of Hanekes village make a much more underlying sinister horror opposed to the more obvious and explicit horror in ‘The Village’.

Obviously, this is a review I could add to and explore moreso in the future. But, at the moment, I shall merely recommend ‘The White Ribbon’ highly – a gradual build-up deconstructing the twisted morals of characters in history. Yet like the best historical films, it has a striking relevance today as the world our children now grow up within – celebrity role models, possessions to define wealth, happiness defined by money – will inevitably have a knock-on effect on their adult lives but, we await with baited breath, as to how. No answers from Michael Haneke, merely the question raised.

In the words from ‘Starship Troopers’ – do you want to know more? Check out this article discussing faith in the film.

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