The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

by Smart

We are looking into the past, and that implies a future. We are haunted because we can already see the future reflected in the past. We are trapped because we know this is human nature and for all the good in the world there is just enough evil to wipe it all out. The setting of a small town dominated by religion and agriculture is perfect for Haneke’s examination of what he refers to as ‘the origin of every type of terrorism’. Scene after scene we watch as innocence is crushed; as one ‘accident’ becomes multiple atrocities. Through all of this we are gently guided by the voice over narration of the village school teacher, now an old man looking back on the strange events that transpired around him so many years ago. He builds the central mystery of the film and helps to weave all of the characters and their loose narrative threads together. Meanwhile his younger self is falling awkwardly in love with a young new arrival to the community, creating a warm, albeit difficult romance in the middle of the ever-growing shroud of darkness that is The White Ribbon‘s weighty thematic construction. This lofty morality play is made all the more successful and engaging by the adeptness of the craft, which is so piercing and succinct that it avoids being heavy-handed or contrived and instead elevates the serious quintessence of the story to a challenging, enthralling intensity.

I was lucky enough to view The White Ribbon in its original digital format, which provided the cleanest, sharpest cinematic experience of my life. Every insignificant facial hair, every tear drop, every wrinkle was right there, unmistakably real and visible on each worn and worried face. Wide shots filled with such fine detail and the exquisite use of vertical framing pushing characters and objects to both the top and bottom of frame simultaneously, forcing our eyes to roam about the exhaustive and rich world, creating a stark, meaningful transparency. Comparisons to the work of Béla Tarr seem fitting, not just for the use of black and white, but also the long tracking shots, which move like a silent ghost through the houses and lives of the characters. At times lighting would become so sparse that we would be left with nothing more than a fiery flicker, which would then, upon the arrival of winter, create an extreme contrast with the burning whiteness of the fresh snow. This scrupulously consistent aesthetic is more than just beautiful; it is an accurate, commendable representation of the internal functioning of the film. Still, I feel what will stay with me the longest is the performances of the children. Each one felt professional, authentic and mature, no doubt another testament to the excellent direction of Michael Haneke, who has created a film with absolute intent and potent execution.