Review: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon represents the latest addition to Haneke’s increasingly formidable catalogue. It tells the story of a North-German village on the chronological cusp of WW1, where a series of strange events begin to unravel and disturb its serene moral exterior. Somehow involved are the young children of the village, although whether they are victims, perpetrators (or both) is left to interpretation, and becomes one of the main focal points through the course of the picture.

As with many films from Haneke, succinct summaries are doomed to fall short; their elliptical psychology forbids it. Indeed, to impose a fixed narrative arc captures only a fraction of the experience; to describe it – for instance – as a purely moral examination misses the point also. Just as a musical composition can be said to be produced out of the precise spaces and absences of sound, so Haneke’s films rely upon a similar principle. The visual experience draws upon the peculiar texture of the blank space, demanding an active spectator to interpret its patterns accordingly. Suffice to say, The White Ribbon is a film where narrative threads are rarely succinctly tied.

Its core theme points toward the children and their chronological relation to history, positioned as the nascent fascist generation who would later permit Hitler’s rise to power. Their dramatic charge is a significant one, and as subject matter demands respectful treatment. If the yoke of German fascism is cemented in popular history at the Treaty of Versailles, where the country’s symbolic dignity was signed away from itself, then The White Ribbon seems to be rejecting such a blanket reading. True fascism, according to the picture, is naturalized at childhood, and its formative processes are just as perverse and morally destructive as its outward manifestations at psychological maturity. The source of this toxic development is located primarily within the community’s repressive modes of punishment, where we see a series of disciplinary measures that are distinctly archaic in their perversity: organized spankings take on an almost ritualistic form; children’s hands are tied to their beds to prevent pre-sexual experimentation, and a white ribbon is used as a kind of cleansing ritual by attaching it to a child who has previously transgressed.

A child wears the white ribbon

It is unclear whether Haneke has chosen this generation and its simulacra to make a revised claim against history, or whether it is simply a locus for him to probe certain philosophical windows. One suspects the former, although its commitment at times appears slightly inconsistent. What one would expect, for example, to be drawn as a tragic arc of innocence lost is undercut by over-naturalizing the children as not simply unfortunate victims of historical circumstance, but as somehow inherently wicked prior to their moral abjection. The textual parallel with Village of the Damned feels too consciously drawn, and its presence within the film detracts from the dramatic charge of its subject matter.

Worthy of note is the picture’s haunting use of mise-en-scene, which manages to captivate the screen with silent authority. It is unusual for a film of Haneke to be so heavily invested in the raw seductiveness of the image in quite this way; his oeuvre has always gravitated toward the opposite function: to resist the viewer and their sense of passive oneness with the screen. The White Ribbon, in contrast, maintains the vibrancy of the image in full; resulting in a precise visual collage of golden black and white hues that eminently bleed from the screen, accentuating a pastoral vision of life that has since faded from contemporary view.

Such pictural elegance contrasts sharply with the film’s dark subject matter in a way that is notably disjunctive. One senses that this is intentional, and meant to serve a symbolic function. Indeed, the seductive imagery mirrors precisely historical fascism’s own aestheticized seduction, where the pastoral scene is evoked as part of a unifying myth of Aryan supremacy. In one shot, the hypnotic coherence of a field of harvesters perfectly synchronized in labour immaculately references Nazi propaganda both in message and aesthetic. Shot from certain angles, the village itself betrays the architectural impression of Auschwitz; its inhabitants a timeless spectre wandering aimlessly through history. In The White Ribbon, fascist echoes haunt the screen space as phantasmagorical premonitions

The pastoral scene: a fascist aesthetic?

In an interview Haneke suggests that the rigid moral structures of the community (and their strict enforcement) condition the children into a perverse hyper-censorious state – compelling them towards violent and tortuous acts in response to any perceived infraction to their internalized moral code. The ritual of the white ribbon as a disciplining mechanism must be read within similar lines; where its cleansing function in childhood takes on a pathological dimension in adult life; a destructive fixation on ‘whiteness’ as a symbolic pathway toward moral purity. It sits as a malignant kernel of nascent fascism which the film takes as its central metaphor.

It’s a bold position, and not one that the film is quite able to sell convincingly. However, as a filmic exploration one need not follow its esoteric logics to appreciate the overall force of its cinematic experience. It is a majestically shot window into a previous world and its peculiar rituals of being, and can be enjoyed entirely on such a level. For those who wish to journey deeper into the caverns of symbolism and subtext and attempt to psychologically map the film as a codified portrait of the fascist unconscious, your appetite will be well gorged.

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