White Ribbon, The (2009): Haneke’s Tale of the Banality of Evil in Pre-WWI Germany

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In Competition)–Mesmerizing and haunting, White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s chronicle of the banality of evil and roots of violence in pre-WWI Germany, is arguably his masterpiece, and the very best film I saw this year at the Cannes Film Fest.


With strong critical support and savvy marketing, Sony Classics, which acquired the film’s U.S. rights before the festival (based on the strong script), should turn the tough, intense, uncompromising but brilliant German-speaking film into a cinematic event of the highest order.


Shot in austere black-and-white, “White Ribbon” (“Das Weisse Band”) is an epic period drama, a realistic portrait of one small German village in the pre-WWI era (1913 and 1914 to be exact), and also as a socio-political parable of the German national character, aiming to shed light into the rise of facism in the early 1930s.


Haneke has explored the roots and nature of violence in other pictures, notably “Hidden” (“Cache”), “The Piano Teacher,” “Funny Games” (which he also unsuccessfully remade as an American movie), and “Time of the Wolf,” all of which have played at the Cannes Film Fest in the main competition; his earlier films were shown at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight sidebar.  However, he has never worked on such an ambitious and massive scale, and with such a large number of characters.


Meticulously mounted, “White Ribbon,” operates on several levels and demands the viewers’ consistent attention to the smallest detail.  On one level, the tale unfolds as a puzzle, a mystery of a series of seemingly unrelated and unexplainable crimes that took place in one “innocent” community.


As in “Cache,” which made you wonder who was sending the tapes to the married couple, there is a red herring at the center of “White Ribbon.” The question is: Who is behind the series of bizarre incidents that happen to the village’s dwellers?  To his credits, Haneke is using the format of the suspenseful mystery to raise broader, more serious issues that pertain to power and its abuse, rigid discipline and its price, as they apply to both the domestic-familial and the collective-political arenas.

Yet, unlike his approach in “Funny Games” and even “Cache” (Haneke’s biggest international hit), which were thematically simpler and more accessible to audiences, in “White Ribbon,” he refuses to offer easy answers, or identify the sources of malice that pervade the community.  Deep, ambiguous, multi-nuanced, open-ended, and sumptuously crafted, the movie is like most masterpieces a work based on complete congruency between content and form, subject and style.


The film deservedly takes its time with a deliberate pacing in sketching the everyday life of one “typical” rural town, defined by sharp hierarcy along social class, dominant religion, and strict mores in governing routine behavior.  While it’s impossible to compare it to other films, “White Ribbon” does bear some resemblance to some of the works of the Danish master Carl Theodore Dreyer, specifically “Ordet” (also shot in austere black and white) as well as to the German multi-generational epic “Heimat.”


Most American films, past or present, steer clear of painting such a wide and richly textured canvas as Haneke’s, which consists of two dozen characters linked together by one fact, geographical proximity: They are all residents of the same village and almost all of them, particularly the women and children, are victims of abuse, be it physical, sexual, and emotional.

I have not read the screenplay, but by my estimate the two-and half hour saga consists of numerous brief scenes (perhaps 50), many of which are marital and familial, as Haneke the writer-director shifts the action from one household to another, from one (mal) practicing professional to the next, and from one random “accident” to another.


The film is framed by a voice-over narration of what’s the only ”positive” character, an affable teacher who looks back at his town from the privileged position of history, that is, decades later, after WWII.  As he says in the opening sentence, he is not sure that all the details of the story are true, but he is sure that it’s worth telling it for there may be saying more than meets the eye.


Haneke is a terrific, manipulative director who likes to upset and to shock, and here he does it by interrupting the natural order of a remote, peaceful village from the very first image, which shows how the local doctor is injured when his horse trips over a wire between two posts. No one knows who’s responsible but it suggests deliberate malice, perhaps even conspiracy of silence.


Later on, in quick order, a farmer’s wife dies in an accident at a sawmill.  The son of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns most of the town and employs half of its residents, is assaulted. A mentally disabled boy is found beaten up in the woods and might lose his vision. The doctor’s young child disappears and is later found half-naked on the road, and at the end the doctor himself is missing.

The story is presented with a visual austerity that reflects the Protestant values and sharp stratification of a small agrarian community.  The Baron and his family occupy the socio-occupational center: After the harvest, they invite their uneducated (perhaps even illiterate) farmers to their house for a festive celebration. The town’s other social-moral center is the church, in which the pastor delivers impassioned but insincere speeches to God-fearing denizens.


According to Haneke, sickness and malice define every aspect of life, every social class, and every family of the community, though gradually it becomes clear that the main victims of the prevailing authority structure are women and children.  Indeed, the most forceful scenes are between husbands and wives, or fathers and children (particularly boys but also girls).


Take the pastor, for example, who demands that two of his children wear a white ribbon, which signify purity, due to their late arrival home one night. And he is not beyond moral repproach and physical punishment when his son is caught masturbating, demanding that his hands be tied to his bed while he sleeps. When the boy pleads for help from his brothers, they are petrified of their patriarchal father.


The doctor, who is usually the moral center in Small-Town American melodramas, is nasty, abusive, and corrupt.  Late one night, the doctor’s youngest son, suffering from nightmares, bursts into his father’s room only to find him alone in a compromising position with his elder teenage sister in what appears like incest.


As noted before, the abuse and exploitation are manifest through verbal, emotional and physical acts.  In the film’s harshest scene, the doctor tells his mistress-partner, who became the midwife after his wife’s death, that she’s old, ugly, messy, and has bad breath and thus he can’t sleep with her or look at her anymore; it turns out that what “bonds” the two is a big secret of their past they hide from their neighbors.


Emotional repression, authoritarian discipline, and physical punishment are the cause of rage, tension, and violence, which must and do erupt suddenly, irrationally and cruelly.  At one point, the pastor’s daughter kills his caged bird with scissors, an act that follows her brother’s begging his father to let him keep a wounded bird.


Only one character is not reprehensible, the local schoolteacher, but he is tortured or subject to unnecessary disciplinary methods, too.  The instructor spends a whole year courting the nanny of the Baron’s family, an innocent adolescent who comes from a large family and needs to work, whose father dictates all the rules, including courtship.

“White Ribbon” ends on the eve of tumultuous event, the beginning of World War One, in September 1914, which later led to the German defeat, the Weimar Republic, and the rise of National Socialism and Hitler. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see that Haneke proposes a theory about the construction of the German national character, a type of personality that partly led to popular support of Hitler.

The speech of the Baron’s wife, when she decides to leave him with their children, is a key scene of the whole picture.  She says she’s sick of living in a place dominated by “apathy, malice, envy, and revenge,” attributes that are considered to be part of Germany’s national culture.  While watching “White Ribbon,” I kept thinking of the film scholar-theorist Sigfried Kracauer and his provocative thesis, “From Caligari to Hitler,” which examines the films of the Weimar Republic as cautionary allegories and moral premonitions of the Nazi regime of the 1930s.


Haneke makes these suggestions by implication, indirectly, through calibrated dialogue, sharp imagery that’s a model of precision, associative editing, and music that derives only from natural sources within the tale, such as a church choir or steps up and down the staircase.



The Schoolteacher – Christian Friedel

Eva – Leonie Benesch
The Baron – Ulrich Tukur
Marie-Louise, the Baroness – Ursina Lardi
The Pastor – Burghart Klaussner
Anna, the Pastor’s Wife – Steffi Kuhnert
The Steward – Josef Bierbichler
Emma, the Steward’s
Wife – Gariela Maria Schmeide
The Doctor – Rainer Bock
The Midwife – Susanne Lothar
Klara – Maria-Victoria Dragus
Martin – Leonard Proxauf
Erna – Janina Fautz
Karli – Eddy Grahl
Narrator – Ernst Jacobi



An X Filme Creative Pool (Germany)/Les Films du Losange (France)/Wega Film (Austria)/Lucky Red (Italy) presentation. (International sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.)

Produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz, Andrea Occhipinti.

Executive producer: Michael Katz.

Directed, written by Michael Haneke; screenplay consultant, Jean-Claude Carriere.
Camera (B&W), Christian Berger.

Editor, Monika Willi.

Production designer: Christoph Kanter.

Art director, Anja Muller.

Set decorator, Hans Wagner.
Costume designer, Moidele Bickel.

Sound, Guillaume Sciama, Jean-Pierre Laforce; associate producer, Stefano Massenzi; assistant director, Hanus Polak Jr.; second unit camera, Leah Striker.


Running time: 144 Minutes.