Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” is a film set in the past that couldn’t be more important to the present. The German black-and-white movie is an unsettling and timeless commentary on the birth of evil in society.
The setting is a feudal village in Germany, named Eichwald, in the years just prior to World War I. The town is a quiet community of workers employed by the local aristocratic baron. The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) rests comfortably at the top of the social hierarchy, while the rest of the village — which includes the protagonist, a school teacher narrating the story as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but witnessed it as a young man (Christian Friedel) — lead dismal lives in his service.
The village is plagued by a series of misfortunes that escalate in severity with each new incident. The townspeople suspect foul play and point fingers. This makes “The White Ribbon” seem like a whodunit mystery, but this is not true. Haneke is more interested in revealing the ill treatment inflicted on the children by the Baron that will lead to future events. This generation will build Hitler’s Third Reich, and in the film audiences can see the seeds of a dark future being sown.
Haneke forgoes music and uses silence to build dread and suspense to great effect. The dim lighting creates dark and shadowy spaces that convey the town’s secretive nature. Eichwald is a poisonous place, and each shot conveys the unease of living there with astonishing skill.
The acting in the film is exquisite. The child actors bring the perfect tone of foreboding to the screen. The audience can sense the malice building behind their faces. Friedel, a first-time actor, brings both sternness and compassion to the screen. He exemplifies the kind of person who isn’t bad but is nonetheless complicit in the village’s corruption.
To focus on drama and writing, however, is to miss the point of the film. “The White Ribbon” is a movie most focused on its theme about how evil begets evil. Haneke’s direction is masterful in getting this theme across, particularly in the film’s breathtaking final shot in which the village gathers in a church. The children whisper ominously, and it is clear that sinister plans are being conceived.
“The White Ribbon” is a film with a subject matter that is both awful and essential. This incredible story reveals the truth behind evil.
“The White Ribbon” was written and directed by Michael Haneke.