German director Michael Haneke loves exploring what people do behind closed doors, and it never happens to be noble, whether it's the sexual perversions of a music professor in “The Piano Teacher” or the havoc wreaked by miscreants in a quiet suburb in “Funny Games.”
In “The White Ribbon,” he investigates the provincial milieu of a protestant German village to challenge what archetypal characters might be up to between bringing in the harvests. Evidently, not much good either, as we're thrust into a world in which the most rigorous moral values often are entrenched ignorance in disguise that results in a lot of harm. And that's when the people aren't purposefully hurting each other, or having an accident befall them for which that they have no precaution or cure. Life may have been simpler back then, but simpler doesn't always mean better.
Assembled with a uniformly excellent cast, the black and white film (with English subtitles) is narrated by an amiable school teacher (Christian Friedel) who recounts his courtship of a young nanny (Leonie Benesch) in a rustic village during a period of unusual turmoil on the eve of World War I, in which a series of heinous and anonymous crimes are committed, somewhat exacerbating the normal daily grind. As we get to know these rural neighbors we realize Haneke (who co-wrote the story with Jean-Claude Carriere) has created a who's who of the setting's archetypes only to try to undermine our natural preconceptions about them.
In addition to the school teacher and the nanny, there's the country doctor (Rainer Bock), the pastor (Burghart Klaussner), the weathered farmer (Branko Samarovski) with children piled to the rafters, and on and on — all graciously lorded over by a stately baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi). Various farmhands, midwives and golden-haired lasses set us up, with Haneke slowly pulling out the rug. While we get to know these characters, their private lives become something of a horror show in which almost no one escapes committing or receiving injury.
Haneke uses these self-destructive and malicious acts, along with random misfortunes, to set up interesting parallels, such as the doctor and pastor who both abuse their children. One man does so for his own pleasure, the other for the pleasure of saving his children's souls. Then there's the nanny and her eventual replacement (Birgit Minichmayr) after she's fired for no reason. One is a good girl and the other is a bad girl, and you can guess which one the baron wants around.
There's more than one moment of divine humor in the injustice of it all. You have to wonder how the pastor keeps a straight face, tying his son's arms to his bed at night to keep him from masturbating, weeks after he ties the white ribbon of the title to two of his children's arms to remind them of purity. At another point two detectives show up, sent to the village by some nearby but faceless authority to get to the bottom of the anonymous crimes, acts of spite that have shocked the community like rural terrorism. But — surprise — their interventions and ineffectual bullying only cause more suffering.
And yet even before those two begin shaking a small child to “get her to talk,” Haneke's film begins to show cracks. He plainly overplays his hand in one particular scene, in which the doctor breaks up with his mistress (Susanne Lothar) by verbally abusing her beyond his own endurance and into the realm of the ridiculous. By the time we've begun to wonder, “Does anything good ever happen here?” the Great War arrives. It doesn't as much loom over the movie as strike a sour note from a trombone over its conclusion, disappointing even the relief of relinquishing our duty to bear witness.
There are arguments for and against “The White Ribbon” centering on its allegorical implications, but they might give the movie too much credit. The idea that all these people suffered in the movie for no reason, because World War I obliterated them anyway, might be a better notion. But does Haneke care? If someone complained that he's interested only in making his characters miserable for his own amusement, the solid and engrossing first two-thirds or so of “The White Ribbon” would argue against it, but then the last bit would, unfortunately, argue for it. (R) 144 min. HHHII