It is 1914 and Archduke Franz Ferdinand is still alive. Yet these cannot be described innocent days for one rural town in northern Germany. A rash of disturbing incidents will mar the community’s deceptive tranquility, well before the impending intervention of great historical events. Of course, far worse atrocities will be committed in Germany in the coming years when the pre-WWI-era children begin to assert themselves in German society. Austrian director Michael Haneke submits that generation of Germans to a rough session of forensic psychoanalysis in his Palme D’Or winning film The White Ribbon (trailer here), Germany’s official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, which opens this Wednesday in New York.
The kids are most definitely not alright in Ribbon, but their parents and authority figures are little better. Random acts of cruelty, often targeting children, have been committed by a person or persons unknown. First, the town doctor is seriously injured when his horse stumbles on a trip-wire, leaving the hamlet without his services for succeeding tragedies. Next, a woman dies in the Baron’s barn, perhaps as a result of negligence. Then the Baron’s son is briefly abducted and severely beaten. Yet the townspeople will soon see even worse crimes.
The local schoolteacher starts to form certain suspicions about the culprits that Haneke unsubtly foreshadows throughout the film. However, Ribbon is less concerned with legalistic questions of guilt than the shocking lack of empathy of the villagers, both young and old, creating the environment that gave rise to the strange crimes. In fact, Ribbon refrains from answering some questions (at least not explicitly), which heightens the film’s unsettling effect.
Naturally, Haneke fingers the usually suspects, like the village pastor’s distinctly Calvinistic version of Christianity and Germany’s severely regimented approach to education. However, there are also elements of class resentment at work, as well. The Baron is deeply unpopular within the village and his son, a true child of privilege, is an early victim. It seems like the final remnants of feudalism are breaking down in Ribbon, leaving a vacuum of authority, which of course will eventually be filled by the National Socialists.
Haneke, the director of Funny Games, hardly set out to make another horror film. Still, the gothic atmosphere created by Christian Berger’s black-and-white cinematography is quite eerie. Frankly, Ribbon is far creepier than The Village, M. Night Shyamalan’s tiresome tale of township suspense. However, the most disturbing aspect of Ribbon is the casual cruelty it depicts through some truly cutting dialogue.
Ribbon is more of a work of directorial bravura than an actors’ showcase. Still, Christian Friedel and Leonie Benesch bring welcome sensitivity to the film as the well-intentioned but ineffectual schoolteacher and his innocent young romantic interest, respectively.
Haneke takes a grim, unforgiving look at human nature, finding it distinctly brutal and malevolent in Ribbon. While he would likely argue his vision of humanity applies universally, Ribbon is seems particularly Teutonic in its austerity and chilly reserve. In spite of its predictably caricatured portrayal of religion, it is a well executed film that successfully provokes uncomfortable questions about man’s fundamental nature. It opens Wednesday (12/30) at Film Forum.