The White Ribbon, or Das weisse band, is a quite remarkable film. (What’s also remarkable is that, without any planning or foreknowledge, I arrived at the Curzon Mayfair and bought a single ticket to the 1.3o showing, and who should appear behind me, but my old showbiz friend The Fast Show‘s Simon Day, also about to purchase a single ticket for The White Ribbon. So we sat together. At one stage, I saved his seat for him, which means that if anybody had sat down next to me, I could have said, “There’s someone sitting there, mate.”) If anything, The White Ribbon could be retitled The Slow Show. Set in a Bavarian village in 1913, it is like a severe, black-and-white Heimat, except it takes place across just the one year rather than 81, and plays out in two hours rather than 53. Two is long enough.
Directed with incredible control and poise by Michael Haneke, whose interest seems to be in the repressive, prurient nature of a tight-knit community, especially one governed by feudal hierarchy and fear of God and the flesh, it is still something of a departure from the contemporary settings of his best known work, Hidden, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. But such is the sense of isolation in this tiny, rural barony, it might almost be said to be timeless were it not for the narrator’s references to the gathering storm clouds of war and the eventual flashpoint of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. I guess it’s about old certainties being eroded by outside events, or, in the case of the seemingly unexplained bursts of violence and sadism in this village of the damned, inside events. It begins with the death of a horse and ends with the death of an Archduke, which will, in turn, lead to millions more dead, including horses. You can’t help but see the innocence and peace of this pre-war era in the silent fields of wheat and other crops, the very fields that will soon be torn up in France. When one character takes his revenge on the baron by destroying a field of cabbages, portent is in every swipe of the scythe. (Good lord, he’s even using death’s own gardening implement.)
The crisp monochrome makes it look like a 1950s European film (I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monkia and Smiles Of A Summer Night, which I love), and it’s only halfway through that you start to notice the lack of music. The titles are silent, which is unnerving enough, but the lack of a score isn’t immediately apparent – well, it wasn’t to me. How strange to see a film where the only sound comes from what’s on the screen. After Hidden, which was quite a perplexing puzzle with a fairly open ending, White Ribbon is far more linear, with clear narration to move the action along with the perspective of time having passed, and a mystery that actually gets solved.
This doesn’t mean it’s an easy film. It’s not. It’s stiff and awkward and evasive and its true horror is concealed beneath propriety and tradition and routine, reflecting the airs and graces of the world it portrays; all the more thrilling, then, when the truth comes out, as when the doctor reveals his true, world-weary, patriarchal feelings to his lover, which are not nice feelings at all. Such cruelty merely serves to underscore the emotional purity of the relationship between the starchy pastor and his youngest son, embodied by the injured bird he nurses back to health. (Warning, there are two incidents of animal cruelty, one of them already mentioned, but neither is graphic or dwelt upon. The thought is enough.)
I am still thinking about this film, days later. That is the mark of a great film for me. By comparison, I really enjoyed An Education a couple of weeks ago – well-acted, well-scripted – but I barely thought about it again, beyond pondering how they could let a character in 1962 drop two individual teabags into two mugs. The White Ribbon needs to be seen. Just don’t go in with the fidgets.