We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Das weiße Band / The White Ribbon, 2009
Palme d’Or – Michael Haneke
Prix du Jury Œcuménique – Special Mention
It would be easy to exist in this world if all the villains walked around wearing black hats, sporting extravagant mustaches and tying women to the railroad tracks. If we could always easily identify the source of evil, we could probably do something to mitigate its effects, right?
Unfortunately, as Michael Haneke depicts in his seemingly mundane mystery The White Ribbon, evil in any practical sense of the word is elusive, amorphous, and the result of so many interwoven factors that our conflict with it will never come to a satisfying conclusion.
The White Ribbon takes place in a quiet village in Germany just before the outbreak of World War I. The town is heavily controlled by the major societal institutions it interacts with: the aristocracy, as represented by the baron and his family; the church, through the town’s strict and dictatorial pastor; the intellectual elite, represented by the sexually abusive doctor.
“Director Michael Haneke gives us no easy answers.”
But while these men are in charge of the town, there’s another mysterious force that holds sway in their community. Over the course of the film, strange accidents and unsolved crimes keep occurring, with no indication of who is responsible. We see the doctor thrown from his horse after it trips over a cleverly disguised wire on the edge of his estate. A farmer’s wife is killed at the sawmill, when the rotted floorboards beneath her collapse.
Part of the baron’s estate is set aflame.The baron’s son is kidnapped, hung upside down, and beaten. The son of the town midwife, a boy named Karli who has Down Syndrome, is also kidnapped and nearly blinded. These violent acts occur with disturbing frequency, but the police are unable to make any arrests (although the townspeople invariably have their own theories about who is responsible).
Director Michael Haneke gives us no easy answers. And indeed, the film ends without any real resolution. The schoolteacher, who is narrating the story as an older man looking back on his past, has simply moved away from the town and doesn’t know what happened next. If the mysterious accidents continued, or if those involved were ever caught.
The implication is that there is no one person responsible for this tremendous evil that exists here – the entire town plays a role in creating the environment that allows these crimes to continue, and their severe, repressive attitudes have moulded the character of their perpetrators. There is a sense that the town in and of itself is rotten, from the highest institutions (again, the aristocracy, the church, and the intellectual elite) to the little children.
“These children have had an incredibly strict moral code instilled in them.”
The children in The White Ribbon are perhaps the most interesting element of the film. From a technical standpoint, they are expertly cast and put in tremendous performances that are unnerving in their realism. These children have had an incredibly strict moral code instilled in them, but when they look to the adults around them for guidance, many are exhibiting immoral behavior that runs counter to everything they preach.
The doctor has an affair with the midwife and sexually abuses his own daughter. Many of the parents savagely beat their children. It makes a kind of perverse sense that the kids in the film, many of whom have been severely disciplined for minor infractions (the preacher’s son, for example, was forced to sleep with his arms tied to the bedframe to prevent him from masturbating), would see these crimes and carry out their own punishment.
How can you raise children to believe that every moral failing deserves severe punishment, to literally tie white ribbons on them as a reminder of their virtue and innocence, and expect them not to internalize your lessons? The town is full of evil, that much is clear – and everyone in it is complicit.