What Should Have Won: The White Ribbon
Editor's note: The White Ribbon didn’t win the Best Foreign Language Film award last night at the Academy Awards. But it should have. Here’s why:
There are horrible events taking place in the village—a string of sadistic offenses masked as incidental. No one fully knows who or why. The culprits remain unknown, and the clues appear to have no apparent connections. Will the terrorists carrying out this evil be exposed? Will they ever be brought to justice?
Such mysteries are never resolved in Austrian director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The narrator of story, who experienced the hysteria firsthand as the local schoolteacher, offers his conclusions, but even he admits to uncertainty, making a conscious effort to remain unbiased. While it’s nearly impossible to refrain from attempts to piece together the puzzle, Haneke’s film is far more concerned with the human condition and the social effects of such malevolence, than the revelation of the actual people behind it.
The setting is 1913 rural Germany, just before the First World War, the typical authoritarian community of the location and era: There’s the Baron, Pastor, Schoolteacher, Doctor, farmers, servants and so on. Appearance, though, deceives reality in this seemingly peaceful society. In the opening scene, the Doctor is badly injured and hospitalized after being thrown off his horse because of an intentionally placed trip wire.
The crimes only grow worse. The mother of a severely poor family mysteriously dies while working in a factory. A mentally ill boy is nearly blinded for “the sins of his fathers.” As the violence expands, the villagers’ behavior reveals the worst is hidden below. The Pastor plainly cares more about repute than the well-being of his kids, and the beloved doctor secretly molests his daughter and sleeps with his midwife. And only God knows what the children are up to.
At times, it seems as if there’s not one good soul in the village—an irony of the film’s title: White ribbons symbolize purity and are attached to the children as punishment. Haneke portrays humanity as depraved and incapable of virtue, illuminating a historical distrust in Germany. The issue isn’t, however, this unfortunate truth, but it’s the redemption missing from it. The innocence of the Pastor’s youngest son and the School Teacher’s romance are the only tiny pieces of hope.
Haneke undoubtedly delves into nihilism, but even more transparent is the influence of social structuralism, particularly the ideologies of philosopher Michel Foucault: His film Funny Games exploits the consumption of violence; Caché shows the troubling outcomes of surveillance; and The White Ribbon demonstrates how a society willfully trades liberty for security because of terror.
Nevertheless, the bleak subject matter is greatly contrasted with visual beauty. The film was originally captured in color, but is presented in black-and-white, which gives it a historical look. It couldn’t have been done any other way. From crop fields, to stilted architecture, to snow falling over the village, the scenery is exquisite. Haneke’s cinematographer, Christian Berger, deserves much credit for the artistry—as do the actors.
The White Ribbon is consumed with talent. There are over a dozen notable performances, as none of characters, not even those with few lines or minor roles, function statically. Christian Friedel, who plays the kind, irreproachable Schoolteacher, is remarkable. Though the children are the anchor of the movie: Not one fails at inducing a character’s believability.
Haneke’s film certainly requires a little patience and intellectual exertion with its lengthy runtime and many abstractions, but it’s unquestionably worth the time and effort. This masterpiece is profound and loaded heavily with spiritual, philosophical, societal and political implications. Wholly embracing Haneke’s message isn’t necessary to appreciate the brilliant craft used to pose it.