Wait! Don’t hit that back button. Hear me out on this.
‘Benny’s Video’ is a social horror movie: ‘Peeping Tom’ for the post-video nasties generation. ‘Funny Games’ is your classic home invasion movie, kind of like ‘Straw Dogs’ but without the satisfaction of Dustin Hoffman muttering “Jesus Christ, I got ’em all”. ‘The Time of the Wolf’ is a post-apocalypse movie cross-bred with the home invasion scenario (Haneke doesn’t like his audiences to have any safe places), kind of like ‘The Road’ re-imagined by some strange and disturbing hybrid of Lucio Fulci and Andrei Tarkovsky. ‘Cache’ (a.k.a. ‘Hidden’) is a thriller without any kind of shoot outs or car chases and made up of inordinately static shots. ‘The Piano Teacher’ is a glacially deconstructed Douglas Sirk melodrama with slightly less colourful cinematography and a heroine who sniffs semen-encrusted tissues in a porno cinema and puts broken glass in the pockets of people who piss her off. The sex scenes don’t bear thinking about.
‘The White Ribbon’ – easily the most mellow work in Haneke’s filmography, for all that it touches on child abuse, vandalism, arson, class oppression, misogyny, suicide, and the particularly brutal demise of an innocent and defenceless caged bird – is basically ‘Village of the Damned’ as if directed by Bela Tarr.
It’s a horror movie without obvious horror genre imagery. It’s a story about demonic behaviour where the demons are – … ah, but this is where it gets ambiguous. Let’s backtrack a little and cast our eye over the plot.
It’s 1913; a small town in Germany called Eichwald. Read into that name whatever you like. The town is basically the fiefdom of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), the Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) and the Doctor (Rainer Bock). I’m pretty sure none of these characters are actually referred to by name; only by status. In fact, I don’t recall that many of the characters have names beyond the children. Our narrator – for ‘The White Ribbon’ is recounted in the measured tones of the Schoolteacher (Ernst Jacobi – although Christian Friedel plays him as younger man), a device reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ and which suggests a novelistic rather than filmic mindset on the part of the director – commences the story with an accident which befalls the Doctor. Nah, scratch accident. We’re talking a wire strung between a couple of trees which fetches him from his horse.*
Next up, a woman plunges to her death through the rotten floorboards of a mill, an incident which her adult son blames on the Baron’s cheapjack attitude to maintenance at said property. A minor act of vandalism against the Baron’s property is quickly followed by the kidnapping and mistreatment of the Baron’s son. Tensions exacerbate between the haves and the have-nots. Tensions develop, too, between the Baron and his wife (Ursina Lardi), who insists on decamping abroad with their son. People disappear. There’s a suicide.
The Doctor returns from convalescence and (SPOILERS) resumes his practice, as well as his private activities – sexually humiliating his mistress and doing something quite unspeakable to his teenage daughter. (END SPOILERS) He’s not the only wrong ’un in Eichwald. A labourer goes round asking the village girls how old they are, demonstrating an unnatural interest if they’re 14 and seeming almost disappointed if they’re 17. Meanwhile, the Pastor discovers his son has been practising onanism and responds by thrashing the lad and tying his hands to the bed posts at night. The Pastor reminds me of my old man in the way he talks up the old “spare the rod, spoil the child” / “this is going to hurt me more than it does you” routine. Except where mine would just belt me with the back of his hand and get it over and done with, this SOB tells his kids he’s going to thrash them the following evening and leaves them to anticipate it in a state of silent dread.
‘The White Ribbon’ is subtitled Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (trans. “a German children’s story”) and although the film ends irresolutely, with the culprit(s) never found, no real accusations levelled (the Pastor threatens the schoolteacher’s future in the town when he suggests who it might have been, but never follows through), and the village thrown into even greater turmoil with the news of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and the inevitability of war, Haneke implies quite strongly that the children are … well, not the villains exactly. Nor does the phrase “to blame” quite cover it. To say either would be far too black-and-white. And the only thing about ‘The White Ribbon’ that’s black-and-white is Christian Berger’s magnificently austere cinematography.
The children, ultimately, are in an emotional hinterland. They’re in transition between being victims and villains. Haneke hints quite heavily where it will end for them. They’re already beginning to organize themselves. They’re starting to get smarter than the bullying but intellectually complacent adults who have no concept of the monsters they are creating. Haneke doesn’t need to revisit ‘Funny Games’ turf to make his point. Scenes where the school teacher discovers a group of them sneaking around behind someone’s house …
… are as creepy as anything in a more obviously generic horror film. There might not be any blood and gore in ‘The White Ribbon’; it might be devoid of suspenseful set-pieces or baroque imagery, but the horror’s there all right: it’s in what’s not said, what’s kept secret, what happens when a door closes and Haneke’s camera lingers in the corridor outside.
*This scene strikes a chord with me. A little family history: three or four generations ago, a couple of my ancestors did some work for one Squire F., a nobleman and landowner, who promptly fucked them over as regards payment. In retribution, they laid in wait for him one evening, fetched him off his horse and kicked seven different kinds of shit out of him. Realising they’d just worked over a member of the landed gentry, they hotfooted it for Portsmouth, stowed away on the first ship they came across and made a new life for themselves in Canada. True story. To the Canadian branch of my family: greetings, good wishes, and good on yer for striking a blow in the class war.