Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The White Ribbon

Illustration for article titled The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon begins and ends with single acts of violence fated to spread harm far beyond their intended targets. It opens in a small village in northern Germany, where a doctor (Rainer Bock) is hospitalized after his horse trips over a nearly invisible wire mysteriously strung between two trees along his daily route. It concludes with the residents of the same village learning about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the inciting incident of World War I. By then, they’ve grown accustomed to violence, but not appreciably wiser about where it comes from, or where it will someday take them.

Haneke’s latest is essentially an inquiry into the roots of a certain kind of evil, the sort committed en masse when old ways of thinking start to fall into hypocrisy and irrelevance, and crueler forms start to take their place. Shot with dry discipline in striking black and white, the deliberately paced, consistently unnerving film invites viewers into every corner of its town, from its stately manor to its humblest abode, finding in each an air of unease and discontentment. The working-class citizens break their backs, and sometimes die, to earn only one day of feasting per year as their reward. The baroness wants for nothing, yet wants nothing more than to leave. The pastor lives in perpetual disappointment at the moral failings of his flock, including those in his home. The doctor has turned his despair into abuse. And the children have ideas of their own.

Many terrible happenings follow Ribbon’s opening incident. Some of them are brought to the public eye, while others remain confined behind closed doors. But as the incidents pile up, and the film reveals the source of at least some of the trouble, it becomes obvious that each is the fruit of the same infected soil. Looking back to the beginning of the century, Haneke’s rebuke to nostalgia takes no comfort in the notion of a simpler time. Of course, the particular place he lands in the past offers little comfort. While developing the details of village life, Haneke never puts too fine a point on the fact that the generation we’re watching come of age will soon put its dark mark on the world. Quietly working together to erase the limits of the permissible, they begin a course toward the unthinkable.