By Sally Campbell
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The White Ribbon

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
Director Michael Haneke; Release date: 13 November
Issue 341

The White Ribbon is an utterly convincing and absorbing portrait of a small north German village in the 15 months running up to the First World War. Nasty incidents begin to occur, and it seems there is an “enemy within” disrupting the harmony of the village. Taking his time and with absolute precision Haneke builds up a set of characters ranged in almost feudal relationships with each other: the baron, the doctor, the pastor, the schoolteacher, the farmer.

We meet each household and see the hierarchical structure and rigidity of society mirrored in domestic lives. The pastor punishes his teenage children for staying out late by tying white ribbons round their wrists to represent the purity they should aspire to, he beats them when they fail, and he commands that his son’s hands be tied to the bed each night to stop him masturbating.

Over in the doctor’s house he humiliates his secret lover and abuses his daughter. Yet these men aren’t simplistically “evil” – they see no contradiction in their behaviour and they also show their children love.

The doctor is seriously injured one day when his horse falls on a tripwire, deliberately tied near his home. Soon afterwards a farmer’s wife dies in an accident at work. Then the baron’s young son disappears and is found tied up and beaten. Next the midwife’s disabled son is found severely beaten, with a note lying beside him quoting the Bible: “The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”

As the brutal events add up a sense of fear engulfs the village. The baron calls town meetings to no effect. Only the schoolteacher has a theory as to the culprits, as he watches the town’s children, led by the pastor’s prim daughter, appear en masse after each new horror.

There are brutality, repression and abuse at all levels in this town. The atmosphere Haneke creates is almost suffocating, and the performances he draws from the children are unforgettable. As war approaches the pace in the village, governed by the seasons, changes. This is the end of an era and the start of a new one.

As in Haneke’s previous film, Hidden, the mystery is never satisfactorily solved, but the real point is the examination of these lives and how they may lead to the horrors to come in Germany. The narrative begins with our schoolteacher as an old man, looking back on these events to maybe explain what followed – the children of 1913 were the leaders of the 1930s and 1940s.

Haneke’s message may be as simple as, “Violence and repression breed violence and repression”, but I found this film absolutely riveting. Several weeks on, images and scenes from it are still haunting me.

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