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When evil comes to town

It’s difficult to ‘genrify’ Michael Haneke’s award-winning film, The White Ribbon (“Das weisse Band”). Drama, horror and humour are blended to tell an unnerving story about a series of strange events that disrupt life in a pre-World War I village in Northern Germany.

The film is narrated by the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), whose Christian name is never mentioned, and opens with a description of the first of many ‘terrible incidents’ to befall the town. The local doctor (Rainer Bock) is seriously injured as his horse trips over a wire that has been deliberately spanned between two trees. A local farm worker’s wife falls through the rotten floorboards of the mill. Next, the baron’s son (Fion Mutert)is kidnapped and beaten. A blind, disabled child is assaulted. What makes these crimes so terrifying is not so much the violence of them, but the fact they are perpetrated by someone who the villagers is unable to identify but know lives among them.

While the events that occur at first appear random they soon take on the appearance of a ritualistic almost religious punishment, for, in this village, everyone has a dark and terrible secret. The ‘good’ doctor molests his daughter and emotionally abuses his mistress. The baron’s wife cheats on him, while the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) ties his son’s hands at night so the child cannot ‘defile’ himself by masturbating

And then there are the children themselves. Children are meant to be symbols of purity and innocence, but the viewer soon discovers something is amiss here. Not since the 1960 classic horror, The Village of the Damned, have there been children so sinister at the centre of a plot. The young ‘uns in Haneke’s village seem are as austere and pious as saints, but there is something very creepy about them. You just cannot quite put your finger on it. Bar one scene in which two boys fight the baron’s son for a whistle, the children are never shown doing anything wrong. Haneke lets the viewer infer that through suggestion, creating a sense of apprehension that permeates the film. The fact that Haneke doesn’t name most of his characters, but refer to them by generic names such as The Pastor or The Baron, adds to the unease. Who are these people?

Themes of sin and purity, innocence and guilt form the core of The White Ribbon.The title of the film refers to the white ribbon the pastor makes his children wear around their arms if they’ve committed a wrong. Like a scarlet letter, the ribbon reminds them and others of their shame.  In an interview at the 2009 Cannes film festival, where The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or, Haneke said he wanted to look at how children internalise the absolutised values of the adults around them. These absolutes, Haneke said, whether political or religious, “become inhuman and leads to terrorism.” Thus, a vicious cycle is born – parents, adults, those in authority bully children, their workers, those who are subject to them. The bullied in turn become the bullies and so it continues.

The film raises more questions than answers. The viewer never discovers who the perpetrators really are and there is no proper denouement to the plot. The film ends with the villagers gathering in church, faced with a war not only from outside but the uncertainty of an internal onslaught. All the audience is left with is the question: will the sins of the father keep being passed on?

Director & Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Rainer Bock

Awards: Academy Award Nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Achievement in Cinematography 2010; Won Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film; Won Palme d’Or at Cannes 2009

Rating: 4 out of 5

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