The White Ribbon (2009)

Directed by Michael Haneke

Something is amiss in the picturesque village of The White Ribbon. You can almost imagine Nicolas Cage or Jake Gittes riding in, called upon to investigate the (possible) supernatural at play.

But here there is no one riding in. We are insulated in this village, seeing it through the eyes of a schoolteacher who narrates from the future, his voice tired and unemotional. He is unnamed, and for much of the story, if not all, he feels like little more than a bystander. His own narrative, courting a very young woman, is spliced in with the rest, acting as a bit of relief to the oppressive nature of the rest of the film.

The story is told over the course of a year, leading up to the start of World War I. The Great War is foretold, both in the logline of the film, but also hinted at in the narration and when, on two occasions, a character tells another with some hubris that “the world won’t collapse.”

So even aside from the plot, just the atmosphere hints at something like a doomsday on the horizon. That the film opens with the near murder of the Doctor only adds to this feeling.

It is in the very first shot of the film that we see the Doctor flung from his horse after it trips over a tight wire tied between two trees. Later the Baron’s son is found beaten and barely alive. Then a barn catches fire and another child is beaten so badly he might lose his eyesight.

No one knows who or what is at play, and no one much seems to care, except for the Baron and the Baroness. They are disturbed by whatever infects their village but aside from an impassioned speech and the Baroness fleeing to Italy, they do little to dig out the rot.

The other two important characters are the aforementioned Doctor and the Pastor. The Doctor proves himself to be a foul old man, hardened and mean-spirited, not to mentioned horribly abusive. The Pastor is more withdrawn, his abuse of (parental) powers more in line with expectations of the day. It’s his children, however, who seem to be at the root of everything going on.

Those damn children. Are they responsible? I suppose it’s not certain but the Schoolteacher is certain suspicious, at least by the end of the film.

For much of the film the children are made to seem innocent, curious or generally child-like. They are sweet and occasionally unruly, at times punished for things we’re not fully aware of. When one boy, Martin, entertains death, we start to understand that something sinister is at play. Or if not sinister… well it is certainly devoid of empathy.

As the movie chugs along, through the seasons and with the help of the Schoolteacher’s narration, the children become more and more powerful, if only because they seem less comprehensible. Their withdrawn silence under stern questioning feels less like the natural response to overbearing authority figures and more like a stubborn and sadistic response to the fear and bewilderment of those grasping at narrative straws.

Why is this happening? Do they know anything? What we never get to is why, if they had a hand in it, did they do what they did?

Okay so I’ve spoiled the movie, but this is a film more meditative than plot-driven. It’s a thriller, in some sense, but it takes place so slowly and methodically that you almost forget about the traumatic events that have already happened, at least until the next one takes place.

Much of the town moves on like nothing happened, assuming they aren’t personally endangered, and even the Schoolteacher, ostensibly our protagonist, is incidental to much of the story and more consumed with courting a 17 year-old girl from a nearby village. He is, by nature of his profession, the one intended to teach the children, about math or science of just the ways of the world. But he seems woefully unprepared to do so and in the context of Eva, the woman he pursues, he appears even more child-like, even though he is 14 years her senior.

More than anything he is naive and quietly proud. There is a hard to describe quality about him, maybe just aloofness but it borders on willful ignorance. He is just sort of there, otherwise innocent but less so when we remember what surrounds them, the burgeoning darkness, the perhaps sociopathic children who hurt and kill just to hurt and kill.

Well not so fast there. They never do kill, actually, but the Doctor could certainly have broken his neck and it didn’t look like they bowled with the bumpers on when it came to the Baron’s son.

They are curious, perhaps, about what they are capable of, how much power they have, how much hurt they can cause. And maybe they don’t know any better and maybe the point of the film is to show how they were misled, ignored, abused or otherwise funneled into this way of being by the unnamed adults of the village. Central to this, again, is the Schoolteacher.

So this is a bit of a supernatural film, an evil bubbling to the surface but in a way so slowly as to go unnoticed, at least until it’s too late, like the boiling water surrounding a doomed lobster.

Perhaps the children aren’t as sadistic as I have begun to feel, as the film echoes around my brain. Again the whole story is narrated by the Schoolteacher, a man I called “naive and quietly proud” (yes I’m quoting myself).

He is oblivious and more concerned with his courtship of a woman which feels somehow ill-advised. I can’t explain why, it just does. He is distracted, in a sense, and perhaps in hindsight he tries to make sense of it all by blaming the children.

But as his story is told it certainly feels like they are responsible, not in a vengeful way but a curious one. They are a personification of something harmful but natural, a storm, a danger essential to life itself. Perhaps just death itself, natural and inevitable and sometimes quite traumatic.

And with all that happens in the film, it is telling that it ends so quietly. We see them all, or most everyone, in church, lined up in rigid order as has often been the case. They fall in line at the beginning and they do so at the end, while a war breaks out the Schoolteacher’s marriage is cemented, sped up in fact by the oncoming war.

His last line is quiet and impassive, about how he took over his father’s tailor’s shop after the war. Then he says simply, “I never saw any of the villagers again.”

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