Michael Haneke must have ruled that color was too good for the village of Eichwald in his pre-World War I drama The White Ribbon. Instead, the Austrian renders the benighted town in stark black-and-white cinematography, as if he's withholding the comfort of nature's beauty from Eichwald's quietly desperate villagers. During the harvest festival that provides the film with an uncharacteristically happy scene (at first ...), the narrator remarks that the neighbors gathered, "first in a joyful mood, then in horror and perplexity."
The Horror and the Perplexity might be a more appropriate name for The White Ribbon, with its relentlessly cruel and discomforting vision of family dynamics and the social compact. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and this year's Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, The White Ribbon maintains such a grim, punishing tone, its themes feel like foregone conclusions. Nevertheless, the film recounts an arresting narrative in spite of its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.
The town's young school teacher (Christian Friedel) recounts the tale in voice-over as an elderly man. He acknowledges he doesn't know if the story is true, but that it could hold an explanation for the subsequent events of German history. Eichwald comes across not only as agrarian, but nearly feudal, with a local baron serving as first citizen and primary employer. Crimes and mishaps plague the village, beginning with the town doctor's fall from a horse due to some strategically placed wire. A farmer's wife fatally falls through rotten wood in the attic of the baron's sawmill. Her son takes out his frustrations by decapitating cabbages, and a more terrible fate befalls a child the same day. The crime wave sets the town aflame with gossip and suspicion, but audiences who've seen Haneke's excellent drama Caché know not to expect a tidy resolution to the whodunit.
The scandalous violence turns out to be only the most overt expressions of an astonishingly oppressive, punitive community. When the pastor's (Burghart Klaußner) two eldest children, Klara and Martin (Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf), return home late one night, their father sends the entire household to bed without supper, gives the two malefactors "10 strokes of the cane" the following night, and then makes them wear white ribbons with the hope that the symbols of purity will remind them to behave. Puberty and enigmatic guilt seem to take a toll on Martin, who walks atop the handrail of a woodland bridge to see if God wants to punish him. Later, his father binds the boy's hands to his bed frame to keep Martin from playing with himself at night.
In a town where events range from depressing to calamitous, the children seem to suffer the most – scarcely a meal goes by without a father clouting a child across the head. The White Ribbon includes a girl molested by a parent and a tiny boy who learns, to his sorrow, the meaning of death. Haneke doesn't shy away from manipulating his audience with shots of teary or mistreated children. The monochromatic cinematography seems to magnify the size and expressiveness of the young actors' eyes and other facial features, particularly Proxauf. The young ones can be sinister, too: Black-clad, Aryan-looking Dragus leads groups of the tots through the streets, and the severity of their expressions seems almost intimidating.
Even The White Ribbon's sunny moments hold out little hope for respite. The school teacher woos the Baroness' nanny, but she acquiesces to her father's demand that they delay their marriage by a year. The puritanical pastor and his youngest son share two scenes involving the care of pet birds that would be tender in a less bottled-up community, but here only emphasize the meagerness of the love the characters offer each other.
Haneke uses The White Ribbon to expose the destructive aspects of the kind of tightly knit, church-going, salt-of-the-earth community held up as a bastion of family values. The outbursts of violence seem inevitable in such a repressive community, and Haneke implies that such towns laid the social groundwork for two devastating world wars. The White Ribbon leaves you almost eager for the Great War to break out: Anything that could upend Eichwald's stultifying societal order would be a relief.