Strange events happen in a small village in the north of Germany during the years just before World War I, which seem to be ritual punishment. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery.
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From July, 1913 to the outbreak of World War I, a series of incidents take place in a German village. A horse trips on a wire and throws the rider; a woman falls to her death through rotted planks; the local baron's son is hung upside down in a mill; parents slap and bully their children; a man is cruel to his long-suffering lover; another sexually abuses his daughter. People disappear. A callow teacher, who courts a nanny in the baron's household, narrates the story and tries to investigate the connections among these accidents and crimes. What is foreshadowed? Are the children holy innocents? God may be in His heaven, but all is not right with the world; the center cannot hold. Written by
What do you do when you 'know' there is a very tangible threat but cannot point the finger? Recall, if you will, Jean. Julianne Moore's character in Crash: " . . . and it was my fault because I knew it was gonna happen. But if a white person sees two black men walking towards her and she turns and walks in the other direction, she's a racist, right?" Or the dilemma of Islam in Europe. On the one hand, we are impelled to protect the rights of the vulnerable minority. Protect their beliefs. Their innocence. Everything decent within ourselves that we wish to respect and preserve in others. But on the other, we are terrified of the prospect creeping Islamic militancy. We teeter on the brink of racism. Islamophobia. If we risk the sacred humanity in others we attack it in ourselves. And what if all the indications are wrong? What if all our beliefs are wrong? What if all the words led us astray? Too late, we know we have to talk about paedophile priests. Too late, we know we should have talked about Hitler (in the days before, yes before, he was the Bad Guy). Or even World War One before it happened. There are times when we cannot accuse. Times when it will do no good. But still, as Lionel Shiver might say, there are times when we know, 'We need to talk about Kevin.' Haneke confronts the paradox of confronting the unimaginable. Not in the Hollywood sense of 'too scary to think about.' Just confronting something that is outside the ability of the imagination to foreshadow. In Hidden, the format was an intricate art house film that appealed more to the cinema geek. The cult viewer. A brilliant film but one you would probably need to watch at least twice before you could 'get it.' The White Ribbon is an altogether different genre. The mystery is laid out as carefully as any Hitchcock classic, albeit with the more restrained tones and iconography of Luis Buñuel. There is not the surrealism of his Exterminating Angel, but the clearly delineated social restraints that refuse to acknowledge anything that does not fit, they are all there. A small village on the eve of World War One. A fierce Lutheran Protestantism that will admit no way of thinking unless it is true to the cornerstones of its faith. Ignorance poses as innocence. And the horrors that can spring from deeply ingrained discipline.
Somehow, within a community where everyone knows and trusts each other, a series of very unpleasant incidents occur. A wire is strung to trip the doctor's horse. A disabled boy is brutally attacked. A woman commits suicide. Unexplained arson. The seeds of deadliest emotions are there in a society that allows for nothing except goodness.
Haneke carefully details various forms of patriarchal enforcement of this goodness. It might be righteous anger or compassionate punishment. I recall my philosophy teacher at university saying how some things can be learnt but not taught. Then another professor's dismissal of Aristotle's virtue theory on the basis that it cannot be 'taught.' In this Haneke world of black-and-white moral righteousness, those characters who seek no more than a least worst option seem to come, quite logically, to an untriumphant end. A boy who wants to save a wounded bird. A schoolteacher who wants to reveal with gentleness that which force cannot uncover.
With Funny Games, Haneke shocked with intruders. With Hidden, he forced us to confront a barely solvable mystery. With The White Ribbon, his greatest work yet, a simple story takes on universal proportions. No intruders. No outsiders. We can no longer take refuge in any system of 'universal truth.' Whether it be the science of our sense or the dictates of religion. We must learn as we grow. This White Ribbon is no fairy tale story. It has no fairy tale ending. All is logical. Just that you might never, ever, be able to prove it.
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