AT ITS OUTSET, The White Ribbon's narrator presents the film as something that "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country." Being that the film's set in the black-and-white world of a fictional German farm community just prior to the outbreak of World War I, it's an obvious allusion to the crimes against humanity that would be perpetuated, as adults, by the children in this menacing, tense film from Austrian director Michael Haneke. (This isn't Haneke's first bit of obsession with the psychology of violence—most notoriously, he explored it in 1997's Funny Games, which he unnecessarily replicated with near exactitude in a 2007 English language version.)
But The White Ribbon's lofty, simplified narration is best set aside as the slow, mysterious events of the film are doled out. Ribbon is a smoldering and horrifying masterpiece, but its flimsy opening thesis detracts from its beautiful, haunting power. Much like the moments in Funny Games when the villains break the fourth wall to address the audience with philosophical nuggets of wisdom, Haneke's latest suffers when it attempts to overtly analyze itself, leading to the suspicion that it might behoove him to bury the frustration of wanting to convey explicit profundities, and instead simply rely on his deftness at leading an audience down unexpectedly deep and intense rabbit holes. It's unfair and self-sabotaging to lay something as heavy as an explanation of the Third Reich on the shoulders of a film so elegant, especially when it speaks more to the universalities of human misbehavior than to any particular set of historico-social circumstances.
Ribbon begins with the first in a serious of mysterious, cruel crimes visited on the small village: An invisible wire strung across two trees causes the town doctor's horse to trip, sending him hurtling. As we sink deeper into the lives of the villagers, we are treated to displays from a spectrum of dysfunction: A pastor and conflicted parent (Burghart Klaußner, in one of the film's best performances) ceremonially whips his children when they disobey, tying the ominous and titular white ribbons to them to remind them of their innocence within. Women are shockingly insulted by their lovers, pet parakeets are slain, barns are burned, and children are kidnapped, tortured, maimed, and molested over the course of this otherwise ploddingly paced tale, told from the perspective of a young man working as the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). Again and again, the children, towheaded, calm, and insistently innocent, appear in Children of the Damned-style clusters in the wake of the successive tragedies (at least the ones made public), making uncanny inquiries as to how the victims are doing, and whether they can help. Religious fervor, isolation, and a touch of class division are all called under question, along with the children, as possible contributors to the sinister undercurrents that manifest in the criminal outbursts that bubble up to terrorize the town.
The methodical, even glacial, pace of the film, which lingers on mundane and momentous exchanges alike, draws the audience unwittingly into a subtly taut experience. You may not find yourself gripping the edge of your seat in the theater, but the wary sense of secret evil will dog you for days.
The cycles of abuse and repression represented in Ribbon seem to suggest that what goes around comes around, from one generation to the other—and the dated look of the play-like film gives it a sagacious, wisdom-of-the-ages quality. With a notably subtle touch, Haneke has again shown himself as a master of uniquely suspenseful films that eschew typical, satisfying conclusions. If he can shrug off the urge to oppress them with too-freely volunteered intentions, he'll be remembered as a legend of suspense.