Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke may be most familiar to American audiences for 2005's superbly unsettling Cache, the story of a Parisian man whose past comes back to haunt him as a result of a series of videos sent to his family, most of them picturing nothing more than their home, shot from the alley across the street. It's a film of ideas and a gripping thriller probably best remembered for one of last decade's nastiest shocks, but most fascinating is the final shot, quietly offering one last nudge toward the solution of a mystery that remains otherwise unsolved. The audience, Haneke contends, is not well served by spoon-fed resolutions and untroubling ideas. They should be made to think, and to wonder, or at the very least made to pay close attention.
You don't have to agree with Haneke's point of view to find it fascinating, but you do have to find his point of view fascinating to get much out of The White Ribbon, his loaded portrait of the fictional German village of Eichwald on the eve of World War I. It's a beautiful, compelling film, but it's also confounding by design. The narrator himself—the village schoolteacher, looking back on the events from old age—admits to unanswered questions and incomplete memories, and even the most perceptive viewer will leave with the same problems.
As the film begins, the local doctor is riding his horse. A wire stretched between two trees trips the horse up, and the doctor is severely injured in the fall. When the county police finally arrive, the wire is gone; neither the doctor's daughter nor his midwife assistant are any help determining when it was removed, or by whom. Soon afterward there is another accident—a farmer's wife assigned busywork in the sawmill is killed when she falls through a weak floor. There doesn't seem to be anything connecting the incidents, nor do clear links emerge as more seemingly random, variously awful events continue to plague Eichwald. Some are symbolic, like the destroying of a cabbage crop or the burning of a barn. Others take a much more sinister turn.
It spoils only a little bit to say that the audience's suspicions, if not Eichwald's, turn to the village children, most of them creepy moppets in the style of any movie you've ever seen about evil kids. Generally led by the pastor's eldest children Klara and Martin (Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf, both of them excellent), they travel as a pack, hovering around in the aftermath and expressing inquisitive concern. Maybe we suspect them because we're conditioned to do so; maybe Haneke is taking advantage of us. Maybe not.
But as with Cache, the whodunit is hardly the whole of the point. We're only shown two of what come to be regarded as Eichwald's "incidents", neither of them graphic, and we're misdirected into feeling that The White Ribbon is not a violent film, that we didn't witness the crimes. The truth, though, and maybe a key point of the film, is that violence is everywhere in The White Ribbon. The adults of Eichwald are purposely archetypal: the sanctimonious pastor, the untrustworthy doctor, the petty, indifferent baron and his negligent steward. The way they behave toward their families and each other is wrought with physical and emotional carnage, and they instill their children with repression and malice. Haneke has insinuated that The White Ribbon is about how rigidity and resentment become the roots of fascism. That these young Germans will be adults in the 1930s is not insignificant.
Still, The White Ribbon is rarely an unpleasant film. The schoolteacher (played as a young man by Christian Friedel) enjoys a sweet courtship with the baron's nanny, and between them we see an innocence that's notably absent among Eichwald's younger set. And despite its subject matter, it's also one of the most gorgeous films in recent memory, shot in color by longtime Haneke collaborator Christian Berger but post-processed into striking black and white, a move that might seem pretentious if Haneke weren't working at the top of his game visually, recalling the Scandinavian films he has every right to have had in mind without stepping on any toes. Wide, long takes and dark, dark corners are all the better in which to hide hints and secrets.
It's interesting that The White Ribbon took home the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the same year that Lars Von Trier's Antichrist was nearly booed off its screens. Though the two directors' work is most closely comparable via Haneke's audience-antagonizing Funny Games, they continue to share a kinship as high-minded provocateurs. The difference this time around: Antichrist is a dirty joke, and The White Ribbon is a clever riddle to which no one will tell you the answer.