Set in an unidentified Protestant village in northern Germany during the early part of the twentieth century, Michael Haneke’s luminous and atmospheric The White Ribbon is a crystallization of his recurring preoccupations with the ambiguity of truth, class division, surveillance, and the violence of repression. Prefacing the story with the acknowledgment that his memory of the past may be flawed, the narrator – the village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) – recounts the strange events that happened to their community in the preceding years before the war, tracing the initial occurrence to a widowed doctor (Rainer Bock) who sustained serious injuries after falling from his horse near his home. A more ominous, unrelated tragedy would soon overshadow the mysterious circumstances behind the doctor’s fall: the death of a peasant woman who fell through the rotted floor of a mill owned by the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi). Wary of public opinion over his own culpability for the accident, the baron begins to distance himself further from the community, briefly emerging to host a harvest festival for his tenant farmers that only serves to reinforce their mutual disdain when a drunken guest exacts revenge by uprooting the baroness’s vegetable garden. Distracted by his own romantic pursuit of the baron’s governess, Eva (Leonie Benesch), the schoolmaster initially remains indifferent to the mysteries surrounding the village, until another incident derails his own prospects for happiness. Part deconstructed mystery and part clinical observation, Haneke’s combination of crisp black and white and neutral framing insightfully reflects the spectrum of social division – wealth, age, gender, education, spirituality, moral conscience – that equally serve as historical précis for prewar Germany and contemporary allegory for religious extremism (an analogy that is implied in the image of parishioners in church as the schoolmaster conveys the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination).
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