When a story is set in the years just prior to the First World War, one can usually expect its keynote to be one of lament and loss. In his poem "MCMXIV", Philip Larkin defined the mood in one line – "Never such innocence again".
There are moments of innocence in The White Ribbon, which investigates the life of a quiet village in Protestant Northern Germany in 1913-14 but, this being a Michael Haneke film, those moments are smothered by incidents of grotesque public violence and by undercurrents of emotional and sexual cruelty. Even in this apparently calm rural backwater, innocence is the exception, not the rule.
Shot in eerily beautiful black and white, the film examines a sequence of mysterious calamities that shake the small community. The local doctor, returning home on his horse, is brought down by a concealed trip-wire. The young son of the land-owning baron is abducted and then discovered bound and whipped. A tenant farmer's wife dies after falling through rotten floorboards. A barn belonging to the manor is burnt to the ground. The villagers are disturbed by these brutal acts, but none of them seems to know who – or what – is behind them.
As he did in his much discussed and decorated Hidden (2005), Haneke traces the spoor of guilt back to childhood. The White Ribbon, however, is not about a single buried trauma, but a whole culture of repression in which the powerless – children, mostly, but also a disenfranchised working class – are subjected to a system of barbarous punishments. The village pastor (Burghart Klaussner) disciplines his two oldest children with notable severity, forcing them to wear a badge of humiliation (the white ribbon of the title) to remind each of their lost purity. He whips his oldest boy (Leonard Proxauf) at the dinner table, and instructs that his hands be tied at bedtime to prevent him indulging any unnatural urges. In one upsettingly horrible edit the film for a moment suggests that the pastor is sexually abusing the boy, but the grunting figures are revealed to be the doctor and his long suffering midwife. Haneke won't let us off that easily, though, and later raises the spectre of incest in a different household.
The tension accumulates exquisitely. No director since Hitchcock has been so adept at suggesting the terrors that lie beneath ordinariness. But where Hitchcock would eventually resort to melodrama, Haneke allows his audience no such outlet. His storytelling technique is more to do with implication, with what is left out rather than put in. The sudden exposure of a scene in which a teenage girl is crying while her father looms near, buttoning up his flies, would be horrific enough, but it is witnessed through the helpless eyes of the girl's four-year-old brother. "I've just pierced my ears", she explains through her tears. On the margins of village life we notice a young handicapped boy, and begin to fear the worst for him.
So what is the film telling us? At first, the sense of foreboding surely connects to the coming crisis in Europe, when innocence would be violated in a long attritional war. "The world won't collapse", is a complacent phrase spoken twice here, but if this tiny village is any indication of the national mood then the writing's on the wall. The one character with a suspicion of who the perpetrators might be is the village schoolmaster (Christian Friedel); it's his voice narrating the events of the story years later. Only he has noticed the way the same group of children, led by the pastor's daughter, is always hanging around the scene of each crime, absorbing the aftermath. When he confesses his theory to the pastor, however, the latter furiously rebuffs it – the idea that children could be capable of such things is a "monstrosity".
But Haneke seems to be projecting even further ahead, for the wrongdoing at large in the village prefigures what would befall Germany in the years between 1933 and 1945, in both small instances (enforced wearing of a symbol, minor sabotage) and large (the burning of buildings, the urge to purify by persecution).
These clear-eyed and seemingly obedient children will be among those who vote the Nazis into power; they may themselves become functionaries and recruiters of the Party. Is it fanciful to discern in an ordinary Protestant village a breeding ground of racial prejudice and violent authoritarianism? Haneke doesn't think so, but then he would take issue with the word "ordinary", just as he would with the word "innocence". There is no prelapsarian idyll, says the film; only a society that was more vigorous in its efforts to conceal and deny. Humankind, it implies, has always been made of crooked timber.
A crooked, but not a wholly evil species: Man is as capable of decency as he is of depravity. Two instances are adduced here, and they span generations. When the schoolmaster is driving his fiancée home he turns off the road, suggesting a quiet spot where they can "picnic". She demurs, understanding the euphemism, and asks him to resume their journey. He gently confesses that he had no ulterior motive, but he understands her fear ("please") and yields to it.
In the second, the pastor, barely deserving of anything good, is visited by his youngest son, who offers him the pet bird he has nursed back to health. It will replace his father's own dead bird – also mischievously destroyed – and "cheer him up". The pastor's face seems about to crumple under the force of such compassion.
So Haneke is not holding up a whole generation to opprobrium; he is never so unambiguous. The White Ribbon remains open-ended, and thus a little frustrating. We have no conclusive proof of the evildoers' identities, however strong are suspicions may be. This cool-headed, watchful film simply invites us to observe, to imagine, to make up our own minds. That's another way of saying it treats its audience as grown-ups.