The White Ribbon, 144 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 6 May 2010.


(This is my review as published in the May 2010 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)

Austrian Director Michael Haneke is always controversial. His earlier films have all created great debates, as people try to work out “whodunit?” or “what does it all mean?” With Haneke, the film doesn’t finish when the credits roll. It continues outside the cinema, as we all discuss what we’ve seen for hours, and sometimes days, after the film ends. Haneke never spoon-feeds his audience. He wants us to work.

Haneke’s previous films include Benny’s Video (1992), Funny Games made in German (1997), and remade with an English-speaking cast in the US (2007), La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) and Caché (Hidden, 2004). In each of those films there are questions that remain unanswered. Some filmgoers find this frustrating, but others find it challenging and engaging.

The White Ribbon is well and truly worth the effort. This could be Haneke’s masterpiece.It won the Palm d'Or for Best Film at Cannes in 2009.

 It is certainly his most beautiful film. Haneke and cinematographer Christian Berger are working in black and white, but they have used colour film and drained all the colour from it. This somehow gives the film a richer feel – the blacks are deep and full and the whites seem to have a texture, like clouds. Each frame seems to have been exquisitely composed. Sometimes the effect suggests Vermeer’s works, but painted in black-and-white.

The attention to detail extends to casting, too. Haneke says he met with over 7000 children over more than six months, in order to find faces resembling those you see in photographs from the period – the years immediately before World War I.

The film takes place in a village in northern Germany. A series of strange events occurs. The village doctor’s horse falls, and the doctor is seriously injured.  A trip-wire is found, so this is not an accident.  A child is abducted and maimed. A woman is killed in what seems to be an accident in a sawmill. A barn burns down. Someone destroys a crop of cabbages just before harvest-time. Another child is abducted. Animals are mutilated. Is it possible that these are all random happenings, or could one person, or perhaps a group, be responsible?

Most of the main characters in the film are archetypes: the doctor, the teacher, the pastor, the baron, his wife, the steward, the Farmerfarmer, the midwife, and so on.  But the mood becomes more and more ominous. Always, there’s the feeling that something bad is about to happen. The adults, and then the children, are increasingly cruel. The doctor, recovering from his accident, is unaccountably cruel to his mistress. Only the teacher, and his new love, seem free of the malign force that appears to be enveloping the village. The pastor’s punishment of his children is way out of proportion to their misdemeanours. He makes two of them wear white ribbons, as a symbol of their lost innocence: hence the film’s title.

All of which leads to what I think is the film’s core concern: the origins of evil. The film opens with a narrator (the Teacher) telling us a tale that he says might be based on hearsay – it all happened so long ago – but which he hopes will “clarify some things that happened in this country”. The connection with the rise of Fascism is clear. But Haneke is making a wider point, about “innocence”, and how it can turn to evil.

Haneke maintains that there are logical explanations for every crime in the film. “You just have to look for them,” he says. His theory is that when you have to search for answers, you go deeper, penetrating the layers of the film, and using your imagination.
When asked why his films are always so disturbing, Haneke has said that mainstream cinema and television only touch the surface of things. He wants his audiences to gaze deep into their humanity. After all, he asks, even from its beginnings in Greek tragedy, hasn’t drama sought to examine the depths of human existence?