As a filmmaker, Michel Haneke has been synonymous for well over a decade with cinema that is uncompromising in the way that it coldly, even cruelly, scrutinises the world we live in. His latest work ‘The White Ribbon’, arriving in British cinemas preceded by critical praise and the title of winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, shares many of the thematic concerns of his previous projects: the violence that we tolerate to thrive amongst us, and the everyday evils that may lurk behind our neighbours’ closed doors.
However, unlike ‘Hidden’, Haneke’s previous master-class in this surgical brand of cinema, which raised a magnifying glass to the cracks and fissures that riddle the modern French suburban household, ‘Ribbon’ travels back to a tiny pocket of the past to expose underlying malice in the mundane. The film details the peculiar and unsettling events that occur over the course of one year in a small German village just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. From the very beginning it is clear that the unassuming puritanical community, with its cast of barons, pastors, doctors and cherubic children, hides dark secrets, not least of which is the identity of the perpetrator of a series of brutal crimes that throw the village into discord and paranoia. The suspense and unease that Haneke manages to sustain throughout is highly impressive, especially considering that he never needs to resort to gratuitous violence or risible twists to unnerve the audience. It is all done by the power of suggestion: the things left unsaid and the acts left unseen in the elliptical narrative powerfully convey a sense of impending horror, and of repressed trauma that must eventually explode in clandestine acts of violence. To make things even more portentous, the narrator invites the audience to interpret the unfolding events onscreen as somehow anticipating the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Look again – suddenly the children, blond-haired and uncannily organised, seem less cherubic and more like future members of Hitler’s ‘master-race’.
Yet despite the brooding and malignant atmosphere, stylistically one might accuse Haneke of going soft. There are welcome oases of comedy amongst the bleak landscape, and even a genuinely warm, if amusingly chaste, romantic sub-plot between the village teacher and a local nanny. Haneke’s addition of these lighter shades to his dark palette do not detract from the overall seriousness of the story itself, however. In fact, by the contrast they offer they heighten our awareness of the seething resentment, sexual, economic and religious, that is choking the village. Without them, moreover, the film might have been too overwhelming in its depiction of communal sickness.
‘The White Ribbon’ is a challenging film because of this focus, but it is also rarely ever less than compelling. Aside from the me
ticulously paced script, the performances are uniformly superb, convincing enough to make one forget that the film was only made last year and that the actors probably had their mobiles out between takes. The cinematography is also deserving of a mention, capturing the seasonal beauty of the German countryside with its seas of rippling corn and thick snow, whilst simultaneously managing to cultivate a hazy, dreamlike quality that perfectly suits the eeriness of the subject matter. In fact, there is very little to fault the film on, as every element of every frame seems finely polished by a filmmaker who clearly takes his art seriously. With its considerable length, disturbing content and formidable intelligence, ‘The White Ribbon’ might be a film that seems to dare you to test yourself against it, but if you’re feeling up to the task it’s a match well worth seeking out.