The full title in German of the film is  ‘Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’ – ‘The White Ribbon – A German Children Story’ which could translate as ‘story for children’ or ‘story about children’. A story for children it certainly is not – Michael Haneke is the author of some of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, and if there is some sense in age rating of movies, I would avoid showing his films to children under a certain age to protect them emotionally. It is a story about children, and the film can certainly be categorized in the genre of these horror stories where the Devil seems to be incarnated by innocence, and for sure a good one in the genre. Haneke knows how to create and maintain tension, how to film the real while suggesting the missing, how to pass the anxiety beyond the polish of civility. But the film tries to be much more.

The White Ribbon / Das Weisse Band

We are actually warned from start what the film is about. The story happens in the year prior to the first world war, in a rural area of Germany, where the social and moral system in place for centuries seems to have little chances to change. Peasants work the Baron’s fields and gardens, the priest and the Church defend the existing order and the morals, teacher and priests are not more than associates of the existing order. And yet strange things start to happen, some get obvious explanations in the human conflicts, other remain unsolved – accidents, deaths, violent deeds. As the story is told by the teacher of the village many years after the events we know exactly the location in time of the events, and we know that the storms of history will blow up the whole system and apparent tranquility of life soon. However, before war starts the life fabric seems to deteriorate from inside, the whole society and its institutions – church, medical practice, family fife – are deeply sick.

The thesis of Michael Haneke is not far from the one of the American author Norman Mailer in his book ‘The Castle in the Forest’ (I wrote about it in Romanian at As Mailer goes back into the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler trying to discover the roots of evil in his family life and sins of his ancestors, Haneke takes a more general approach and tries to discover the roots of Nazism in the internal conflicts, the puritanism, the unspoken dark secrets of the family life of a constrained society. Obsession with order and discipline, education by punishment and guilt, tight guarding of the appearances of morality without deeds being true to principles do not necessarily lead to the order and quietness that is aimed, but long term can generate quite in the contrary. In a society where speaking the truth and revealing the evil at small scale are less important than keeping appearances of social order the freedom is in danger the evil can develop at bigger scale.

All this is spoken in few words by the off-screen commentary of the village teacher who tells the story, but is not explicit in the cinema language of the film. The impact of the film would not have been that deep without the master cinematographic treatment that Haneke applies to the story. First the black and white image fits perfect the world that is being described, and not only because its a world still lit by gas lamps, but also because the lack of colors reminds the classic German expressionist films that caught in the epoch contemporary or soon after the action of the film takes place the same type of angst. Then the acting is simply amazing. Many of the important characters in the film are kids or teenagers, and Haneke had to do a rigorous selection to select his best actors. he succeeded at utmost, I have seldom seen such a range of kids characters, each of them different, human, true. They seem to belong to their time, and to live through the painful coming of age, which is their growth into maturity in a world which becomes ugly.The tension between the not so innocent childhood they are going through and the adult world that tries to educate them by oppressing their feelings, punishing and inflicting them a permanent state of guilt is well acted and described beyond words.

Haneke avoids to make a harsh judgment. The whole fabric of human relations is not dark, we do have a love story between the teacher and nanny and we do have the innocent gesture of a kid trying to provide consolation to his father by making him a present that is the most important thing in his universe, which say that even in the darkest times and circumstances there is still hope that a flame of humanity is kept alive.  He does not completely solve the mystery of everything that has happened on screen. As in real life some facts remained unexplained, and judgments, even historical judgments need not be fully radical, and and good that such it is.

More details and comments can be found at The film took the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and is a candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, with good chances to win the prize.