When I saw Michael Haneke's last film, Caché, over three years ago, I was enraged and confused. I had nightmares; I couldn't sleep. After that experience, I became a Michael Haneke convert. Like one of my favorite writers, Thomas Bernhard, Haneke is Austrian. Haneke, like Bernhard, strikes me as a artist who wants to explore the genesis of evil, an evil that can and does run through every society, regardless of ethnicity or history. His auteur has to do with exposing and attempting to explain the evils of humanity itself.
He will give you all the tools to embark on this task, but don't expect him to give you all the answers. After we left the theater last night, one of my friends remarked, "is that ending supposed to be conclusive?" The answer is no, I don't think it is. Here is Haneke describing this lack of explanation in an interview with Roy Grundmann from Cineaste magazine:
"The language-bound arts already circumscribe this freedom considerably, because they are forced to name things by their name. But what is named by its name is artistically dead, has stopped breathing, and can only be recycled in discussion. Film exacerbates this further . . . . I always say, a film ought to be like a ski jump, but it is the viewer who must do the jumping. But to enable the viewer to do so, the jump has to be constructed in a certain way. One has to find a construction that lets the viewer fly--in other words, that stirs the viewer's imagination."
The White Ribbon, Haneke's latest, won the Palm D'Or for 2009 at Cannes. It's a remarkable, beautifully-made film. It takes place about a year before the break-out of WWI in a small German village. Most of the children are raised in a strictly Protestant upbringing, where innocence is king and punishment is brutal. Abuse of all kinds and nasty intentions harbor barely below the surface, behind closed doors. A series of violent events take place: the town doctor's horse is felled by a wire strung from tree to tree as he's coming home one night, a woman falls through a rotten floorboard and dies, the Baron's son is strung up and beaten, and a young retarded boy is stabbed in the eyes. The perpetrator of these crimes is unknown. The Baron asks for everyone's help in finding the criminal, as it must be someone from within. "One of us," he says.
The film is narrated by the town's schoolteacher in old age, as a voice-over, but Haneke also chooses to show us plot points the schoolteacher couldn't have known about. However, he acts as our guide, someone we can trust throughout this ordeal. His story is largely relegated to his love for Eva, the teenage nanny to the Baroness' children. Eva is from another town (actually the one where the schoolteacher grew up) and in that way they are both outsiders.
The children, however, are products of this community. They walk about town, traveling in a pack, curiously inspecting the crime scenes. They are the ultimate observers, watching and listening to their parents. However, it becomes abundantly clear to us (and to the children) that their parents do not practice what they preach. There is a growing, seething rage in this town--it bleeds out of the adults and multiplies in strength through their children. When they act out, by not being home for dinner one night, the Pastor ties a white ribbon to his eldest children, as a reminder of their sin and hopeful reminder of their innocence as children. This badge, worn in shame, is eerily reminiscent of another kind of forced symbol to come.
I think the assumption that Haneke hopes to describe these children as children who would grow up to be Nazis as adults works very well. Most critics who have seen the film have leaned towards this explanation and I think it makes perfect sense. After all, in the closing scene, four men step up to the altar with flowers in their lapels - they are the first joiners for to defend Germany in WWI. And behind them, in the choir, singing like angels, are their heirs, the men and women who would "defend" Germany in the inevitable future.
Haneke resists this explanation when questioned about it, saying that he means the film to be more about Fascism in general, not specifically German Fascism. Regardless, The White Ribbon is a fascinating study of a society on the precipice of murder and ultimately, self-destruction. The religious and conservative rules that line the foundation to this history of violence cannot be ignored, and forces us as viewers to wonder which is the true threat: the evil outside that we fear and shield our children from, or in the enforcement of these "rules" the ultimate evil - the evil that comes from within us?