Thoughts on The White Ribbon
That Hollywood’s preoccupation with the Second World War, in particular the Holocaust, has resulted in an overflowing and now somewhat predictable kitty of films is something the industry is beginning to acknowledge. The past few years have seen significant interventions in the genre; the most recent example that comes to my mind is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the film that threw open the question ‘can we really know what happened in that history?’
A war we know even less about is the First World War. While cinema of the world hasn’t exactly ignored this ‘Great War’, it has generated far less interest in popular culture. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s latest venture The White Ribbon may not quite be popular culture, but it certainly gives a haunting context to the First World War.
The White Ribbon is a story told by a former teacher of a village school. He recounts the strange goings on in the village of Eichwald in the period building up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the spark – as history has told us – that lead to the First World War. It is indicated that the village was a relatively peaceful place till the first of many violent and inexplicable events takes place. Children are tied up, beaten, blinded, there is a freak fire, pets are killed and the like.
Unlike most films that consciously place themselves in the war discourse at the very outset by stating the date of the events that will unfold in the course of the film, in Haneke’s film, the war — though identified towards the end by the reference to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand — is a detail. That said, it does provide a retroactive framing of the events which, till then, are just those out of an uncanny story.
This film, like Cache and The Piano Teacher before it, is deeply preoccupied with the idea of violence. With The White Ribbon, Haneke has created an almost poetic experience of violence, which is at once literal and cerebral. In the balance between what is shown and what is hidden from the frame of the camera, the entire film gets shrouded in mystery and an aura of doom. The large, international situation of mistrust that led to the war is brought down to the level of this one village, but by no means is this plain allegory, it is also, on its own, a collection of individual stories that get linked for their small tragedies.
Not unlike the recent interventionist films, this one prioritizes what we don’t know over what we do, which is why the film ends without any factual conclusion. However, the connection with the war is more layered here. First, Haneke has spent considerable time and effort in creating a masterful atmosphere that is loaded. Even when things aren’t happening literally, they are simmering, encompassing every breath of the film. Second, it is less about the event and more about the players, and Haneke typifies them. While the perpetrators come in many guises, the victims remain largely similar. It is interesting to note that the midwife (who is in a humiliating, illicit affair with the village doctor), the pastor’s wife and the steward’s wife look startlingly similar, as do some of the children. The focus is less on village politics, and more on personal violence and humiliations.
We often find ourselves questioning the purpose behind making one World War film after another. While it is a crude thing to do with a film like this, I can’t help but wonder at the quiet links the film makes between current world politics and a war that was fought almost a century ago. The central question is still that of violence and the distinction between a victim and a perpetrator. By the end of the film, this relationship is exploded in a way we find hard to come to terms with. The victims may be children, but they are given the power to avenge themselves and potentially to perpetrate as much violence as they are subjected to. Most of the children who have definable roles in the narrative are frighteningly good actors, especially Leonard Proxauf who plays Martin, the pastor’s son. It is through the children that the film makes a false promise of tying up loose ends like any crime fiction film, and it is through them that this promise is betrayed, leaving us somewhat bereft at the end.
Haneke has paid excruciating attention to the aesthetics of this film, and it is, without a doubt, the most mesmerizing aspect. The use of black and white is strategic as it creates a sense of a silence that pervades the film and makes it all the more troubling. There is no riot of colours and strangely enough, it is the simplicity of black and white that defines these utterly unknowable characters. The camera work is slow and deliberative, with some beautiful long takes that don’t follow characters but allow them to walk in and out of the frame, adding, most consciously to the loaded, uncomfortable and at times tragic silences of the film.