The White Ribbon - Haneke confirms his position as Europe's finest filmmaker

11th November 2009

Michael Haneke's film Hidden is possibly the most admired film of the last 10 years - can his next film live up to expectations? Milo Wakelin gazes into the brilliance of The White Ribbon.

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"Films that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think," explains Michael Haneke. "If there are more questions at the end, then surely it is a richer experience."

The German-born director has confounded audiences with psychological mysteries such as Hidden (2005) and disturbed them with provocative thrillers such as Funny Games (1997, 2007). With over 30 characters and a detailed historical setting, The White Ribbon provides Haneke with his broadest canvas to date, but the film's message unfolds with a clarity that is as meticulous as its crisp black and white cinematography.

The story is set in 1913 in Eichwald, a small protestant German town which has been beset by a series of unfortunate accidents, some minor, some tragic, and some sinister. First the Doctor (Rainer Bock) falls from his horse after stumbles over a tripwire. Soon, cabbage patches are vandalised, fires started, toy flutes stolen - and then the violence takes on a darker, more ritualistic character.

Like György Pálfi's Hukkle (2002), The White Ribbon poses the viewer with a holistic mystery: in order to understand the strange incidents that beset the townsfolk, one must first solve the puzzle of village life in particular, and German society in general.

The adults of Eichwald are known only by their positions within the community: the unpopular Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the stern Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and the pleasantly gormless Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who narrates the story in flashback. The children of the village all have names, but their roles and motives are less obvious.

Despite its disquieting tone, The White Ribbon is buoyed by several moments of levity and a sweet subplot involving the Schoolteacher's earnest attempts to court a local 17-year-old. And even a blisteringly vile tirade between the Doctor and his mistress contains a certain dark humour.

Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, The White Ribbon is a tautly beautiful dissection of a community, which, like Edgar Reitz's Heimat (1984), locates the early signs of the Second World War in the minutiae of everyday village life. By the end, not everything is resolved, but the film's themes are starkly clear: guilt, shame and punishment lead to defiance, perversity and violence.


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