Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon feels and looks like a return to an earlier era of European cinema. From a visual and narrative standpoint, the film recalls the work of Bergman and Tarkovsky in the 1960s and 1970s, and much of its power comes from its recourse techniques of these masters.
The use of black and white, the juxtaposition of claustrophobic interiors against the vast open plains of northern Europe and the fine-grained focus on characters faces are a hommage to Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer for many of Bergman’s films and for the last act of Tarkovsky’s career (The Sacrifice, 1986). Indeed, Haneke’s cameraman Christian Berger studied Nykvist’s work in preparation for filming The White Ribbon.
While it could be argued that Tarkovsky and Bergman used film to explore psychological or spiritual themes, The White Ribbon is by contrast a tale of sociology and politics.
To take just one example, the severe Protestant pastors in Bergman’s works serve to lay bare the impossibility of belief in God, whereas in The White Ribbon, the pastor (alongside the village baron and the doctor) is portrayed as the agent of a sick society where absolute truths are used to dominate through fear.
Haneke has been quite explicit about the message of his film. He claims it as an exploration of the origins of terrorism in all its forms. Haneke’s village of Eichwald is haunted by repression, abuse and violence of all imaginable varieties. It’s matrix of sadism, deliberate and unintentional, in which children and adults alike are victims and participants.
Ostensibly The White Ribbon is a film about Germany. By setting this story in 1913 and 1914, the viewer knows that the children in this film are the generation who will, as adults, oversee the rise of Nazism twenty years later. Just as the feudalism of Eichwald dissolves in paroxysms of fear and recrimination, so the seeds are sown for new forms of control and repression that will follow.
Hannah Arendt invented the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how easily violence and tyranny can become a commonplace among men. With The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke has provided us a sharply-focused (and, yes, beautiful) vision of Arendt’s words come to life.