‘The White Ribbon’ unearths the roots of evil

Little is as it seems in the village at the center of Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.” (Images courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Director Michael Haneke creates quiet worlds where nastiness if not flat out evil erupts for reasons which the audience only gradually come to learn. They are deeply disturbing works, scarring even, which can slither back into a person’s consciousness weeks, months even years after seeing them.

I still think of scenes from “Cache” which give me goosebumps, even though I saw it in September 2005. Ask my colleague Chris Roberts about “Funny Games” (which Haneke made first in German in 1997 and then remade in English in 2007) and he physically shudders.

So why torture ourselves? Because Haneke’s bleak view of the world tells us so much about the human condition.

His latest film “The White Ribbon,” which opens in the Twin Cities this weekend, takes us through a few months in a village in northern Germany just before the outbreak of World War I. Outwardly it’s an idyllic place, a quiet community where flaxen-haired children play in large courtyards amongst the chickens, as their parents work hard but cheerfully on the Baron’s estate.

Yet very quickly we learn the village is uneasy as the result of a bizarre attack on the local doctor. Someone stretched a wire across a path near his home which trips his horse, and lands the doctor in a remote hospital.

It’s just the first of a number of incidents which spread fear through the community, which (as it is after all the 20th century) is beginning to chafe under the semi-feudal system which has them under the thumb of the Baron. Suspicion swirls through the village, but as with all Haneke stories there are no easy answers.

As the film unfolds he provides glimpses into the families: the pastor who rules his children like a tyrant. There are the workers who are torn between their loyalty to and their resentment of the Baron. And there is the village teacher who gets to witness far more of this than he really wants.

At the center of the story are the children, who live a dual existance. When they are with their parents they are yoked into their place as determined by their family’s social position. But away from the adults they have their own society, and it seems their own secrets – many of them quite ugly.

Haneke weaves the multiple stories of the villagers into a dense clump, using the soft tones of his black and white film to highlight the secrecy and hypocrisy of the place.

While he resolves some of the mystery, he leaves his audience teetering with the feeling that something worse is on the way. These are people who are about to be plunged into a world-changing war. And these are the children who will in a few short years be flocking to support Hitler and the fascist cause.

“The White Ribbon” has been hailed as Haneke’s masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why.

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