Usually movies that leave the viewers hanging are unsatisfying, yet The White Ribbon is such an involving movie that its lack of denouement does not strike you as displeasing. Palme d'Or winner in Cannes, The White Ribbon is about the hidden violence that deftly resides even in the most innocent eyes. In a timeless village that lives by its inner social structure and rigid rules, abusive parents breed sadistic children under the assumed veil of morality.
It all begins with the unfortunate accident of the village doctor caused by a wire that throws both rider and his horse to the ground. Other similar incidents occur: a woman is killed in the sawmill, the baron's cabbage garden is smashed, his son is beaten and left hanging in a barn, the same barn is set to fire, a man hangs himself, a child is left blind. Life in the village is altered and the main representatives of the small bourgeoisie- the baron, the doctor, the pastor, the bailiff- are being portrayed as heartless, abusive adults. Behind order, discipline and religion lie corruption, incest, hypocrisy and rotten characters. The doctor is feeling his fourteen-year-old daughter, humiliates his sex slave, the midwife, and oddly vanishes into thin air. The priest constantly brings his children down by depriving them of food, freedom of expression and dignity. He punishes them physically and makes them wear a white ribbon around their arm or in their hair to be constantly reminded of their duty to be innocent. Moreover, he straps his son to the bed at night to prevent him from masturbating. But is this bad treatment of their own children left unechoed?
In terms of symbols, the "weisse Band" of the German title can be seen as the white ribbon, a means of reminding of the lost innocence, but also as a mark of the blindness of the society, its lack of empathy and humanity; Karli, the last victim, is turned blind and the doctor puts a strap of white bandage around his injured eyes. Michael Haneke makes us question whether we are also willing to turn a blind eye to evil or use the benefit of hindsight? It is no coincidence that the strange events occur before the outbreak of the First World War and they are used by the director as a pretext to foresee the atrocities of the upcoming war. War comes in a time when the evil within the souls of people has corrupted and engulfed their last shreds of humanity. Thus, The White Ribbon is a parable for the fate of Germany and the decisive role it would play in the fate of mankind.
The young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), whose older version narrates the story from decades later, and his innocent affection for Eva are seen by the director as humanity's chance to redeem itself and hope for a better future. This might not happen painlessly or at once but there is some promise in the girl's naive smile and in his perceptive eyes.
Michael Haneke is a master at building up tension and keeping us guessing by employing elements of black comedy, white and black filming techniques, superb performances, and a moral content. He uses short, intense scenes such as Rudy's questions about death or the pastor's discourse on the awful masturbation in order to make a subtle connection between social behaviour and repression. Hidden, corrupted behaviour within the family reflects upon the way we act and adapt socially. His manner of bringing to life the most brutal truths in a non-aggressive approach makes The White Ribbon a mesmerising drama and an incredible thriller.
Haneke once said, "I want to rape my spectators into autonomy." The open-ended and multi-layered narrative, the collective guilt and the moral intellectual experience it forces us to absorb, feel indeed like a brutal violation of our self-determination.