Director: Michael Haneke
The award of the prestigious Palme D’Or to ‘The White Ribbon’ at this year’s Cannes film festival acted not only as recognition for the film itself, which it certainly deserved, but also for the cumulative career of its director. Michael Haneke almost certainly is the most consistent and acclaimed film maker of his generation. Just look at the previous films he’s directed; ‘Benny’s Video’, ‘Funny Games’, ‘The Piano Teacher’, ‘Hidden’…. – all of which could be genuinely described as masterpieces. The present period of Haneke’s career is not only his most commercially viable (‘Hidden’ made over £1m at the UK box office, almost unheard of for a non-English language film) but also his most creatively fulfilling. ‘Hidden’ is a candidate for the finest film made anywhere in the world this decade; a scathing look at contemporary racism in France and also its colonial past. It confirmed Haneke as cinema’s moral conscience, as a film maker who holds a mirror to society and reveals the ugly details we’d rather not acknowledge, though it’s something that’s brought Haneke as many critics as admirers.
Such was the impact of ‘Hidden’, it’d be easy to think Haneke couldn’t match it, but ‘The White Ribbon’ is every bit as brilliant. Aesthetically, it’s informed by Dreyer and Bergman, shot in crisp black and white (the sterling work of Haneke’s regular DoP Christian Berger cannot be underestimated); thematically, it draws inspiration in part on Clouzot’s ‘Le Corbeau’ (oddly a comparison that seems to have eluded most critics). Set in a North German Protestant community in the immediate years before the First World War, a narrator whom we later discover to be a schoolteacher, recalls from his semi-reliable memory, a series of strange events that took place – including a doctor falling from his horse, a labourer dying in an accident, a barn being burned, children being attacked – all of which loosely hint at the ascent of Fascism in the next two decades, though this point is never laboured over.
‘The White Ribbon’ develops a number of themes that ‘Hidden’ touched upon. The loose implication of the film is that some or all of the disturbing acts in the film were committed by some of the town’s children (or at least they look as guilty as anyone else) – this would be the generation that would vote in Hitler or even worse participate in the Nazi civic society – this suggests the passing of sins from one generation to another. In this patriarchal society, superficially respectable, moral ineptitude and hypocrisy is abundant. The doctor has a sadistic affair with his midwife, who accepts his abuse, whilst the pastor rules his house with an evangelical zeal, resorting to cathartic violence when the children step out of line, which only fuels their rebellion (the title comes from the ribbon he ties to his children to remind them of their purity).
The issue of who committed these acts of violence, much like who sent the videotapes in ‘Hidden’ is something of red herring. These acts are a device to expose the problems within a community. But Haneke uses the thriller genre to his advantage, to create something much more cerebral. Haneke’s films are tricky, never easy to pin down. He offers far more questions than answers. There’s no facile tying up of loose ends. Much is left to us, the audience, to interpret what he’s presenting us with. This is what good cinema does. It gives us space to think, to feel, to understand. ‘The White Ribbon’ is the work of a film maker going from strength to strength as though it’s even possible.