Just as some of my fellow critics have their faces set — on principle — against the latest Hollywood blockbuster even before the lights have gone down, so do I have an ingrained resistance to certain types of so-called art-house films or, as the Americans now call it, Art Cinema. The director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band) ticks all my anti-boxes for a bad night out: a) it comes laden with seriousness of intent; b) it’s in black and white, always a bad sign; c) it’s in German; d) it’s unnecessarily long; and e) it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. This last one should make it a write-off. It was the gracious Cannes committee, you might remember, which fawned on Michael Moore a few years ago, making this particular corner of the film world enemy territory, as far as I’m concerned.
But the truth is, The White Ribbon is a worthwhile film, although at 145 minutes, it’s a long haul. Yes, it still had the somewhat hazy conclusion that one expects from films which go out of their way to set themselves apart from the mob, and I would take issue with much of the implied message, but the skill and subtlety with which it told its story had me caring what happened. This, in the current alienated movie universe, is by itself a reason to start good word-of-mouth going.
The setting is a small village in Germany months before the outbreak of the First World War. This is a world barely touched by the Industrial Revolution. The inhabitants go about their business of school, work and eating in an atmosphere of ossified feudalism. With its working patterns dictated by the cycle of the seasons, it is a rigidly traditional society presided over by a number of characters who could have stepped out of Thomas Hardy-the pastor, the doctor, the schoolmaster (who retrospectively supplies a narration to the events as they unfold) and the baron and his family, to whom the peasantry are effectively tenured. All things appear bright and beautiful, the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.
But this is no Akenfield, which described a rural idyll in 19th-century Suffolk. There is something rotten in this tiny universe. A series of unexplained, freakish incidents cause the moral and social framework of the community to bend and buckle. They start when the doctor is badly injured, after his horse is felled by a trip wire. The farmer’s wife is killed in a saw-mill accident. The baron’s crop of cabbages is destroyed. His son is later abducted and found trussed by his heels from the barn ceiling, having been severely flogged. Soon after this the barn itself is burned to the ground, although not before the mentally handicapped son of the doctor’s mistress is found tethered to a tree, the victim, apparently, of sadistic torturers.
That’s quite a lot of incident for one small village and one plot, but the film takes its time, moving at a matter-of-fact, sometimes glacial pace, eschewing musical accompaniment and even, it seems, a point of view. We care what happens without caring much about those it happens to. To that extent it operates like a pulp whodunit, with a bit of The Omen thrown in — the characters, mostly unlikeable, are there to serve a point which will, we hope, eventually be made. When the revelation eventually comes, it is overshadowed by the news of an assassination of an archduke and the beginning of a catastrophe which would wipe out ways of life and communities such as this, with their moral structures and the accompanying nastiness lurking beneath the surface of picturesque hay wains, religious festivals and petty respectability.
It would be a pity to give the game away, naming and shaming the culprits. Suffice to say that readers familiar with The Midwich Cuckoos will have a head start. I am quite literal-minded about these things and like my loose ends tied up, but it seems that Haneke had bigger fish to fry than satisfying the needs of a simple narrative. We’re left with the feeling that it was this kind of society, with its disciplines and hierarchies, which in some way was the very cause of the war which was about to engulf it — the seeds of what was to come were sown in villages like this.
In other words, the whole ghastly mess can all be blamed on our old friends, repression and authority. This is hardly a very original subtext and it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. But if it is an ultimately unsatisfying message, the way in which this flawlessly acted, beautifully photographed film conveys it, is not.