The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke’s austere look at a German village on the eve of World War I. The austerity is not only in the composition, but the lives of the villagers, a place ruled by fear, strict obedience, piety and corruption. The village is a symbol of all that is to come in the twentieth century, a place where the inhabitants are the cowed participants of orders that lead them to their own destruction.
As the White Ribbon opens the village doctor is coming home from riding his horse and he suddenly felled by a thin wire that is strung across his path. It is a suspicious event because he has ridden that same path time daily. When it is investigated, the wires are suddenly missing. The accident is one of many mysterious events that occurs in the village and gives the movie a fearful sensibility.
While the mysterious events occur, the film examines the lives of the villagers. There is the baron, a man who thinks nothing of firing a family from his farm if one member is disobedient. In one particular example, the wife of a farm worker dies in an accident in the Barron’s mill. The oldest son of a family destroys the Barron’s cabbage patch as revenge and as punishment the father is let go. All this time the father, instead of blaming the Barron for not keeping his mill working, he accepts what comes to him as a matter of course.
The village minister is the embodiment of austerity and discipline whose sense of righteousness is unshakable. He believes in tying white ribbons to his children to remind them of the goodness that they should strive for. His punishments are strict, a moral discipline he expects from everyone.
As the incidents continue, it becomes more and more obvious that the village is filled with secrets that show the powerful can get away with anything and the weak have no way to resist and go along with the whatever they are told. Only the school teacher and the Baroness can see these problems. The Baroness tries to leave the village, saying that she is tired of the brutality that is everywhere in the village. The school teacher, as an outsider, has not been worn down by fear and is willing, within the limits the German society allowed, to investigate and not let things lay as they are. But then the war comes. The last scene is of the village gathering in the church after Austria and German have declared war. It is a kind of righteous farewell to a world that is about to change.
The White Ribbon is a dark film with cruel mysteries that indite a certain way of life with its obedience and brutality. The movie is not a hopeful one, except, perhaps, in that the world of the village no longer exists. Haneke does not spare anyone from his indictment and White Ribbon is sure to leave one wondering how the people could endure such things, but just watch how the inhabitants keep their heads bowed in fear and you will know.