Michael Haneke is, to my mind, the best example of an “artistic” film director working today. Always challenging, never populist and very accomplished are words that apply equally to his Best Foreign Language Oscar winner, The White Ribbon.
So what happens when the drive for a godly perfection becomes an all encompassing and extremist view point with no scope for reason, grace or latitude? Perhaps, reasons Haneke, you raise a generation that simultaneously feels morally superior and through fear acts maliciously towards others.
This film is set in a small German town during the summer before the outbreak of World War 1. The film is narrated by the school teacher, now an old man reflecting back on the events of that time. The first mysterious event concerns the doctor who is felled, while riding his horse, by a wire strung between a tree and gatepost. The culprit is not discovered and after a time, village life returns to normal.
In this paternalistic society the fathers are the driving force of their children’s experience of the world. It is curious to note each character and what example they set their children which leads to the series of mysterious and malicious events, introduced above, which give the film its narrative.
The Pastor is the most telling character. His rigid desire for the people of the village, and his children in particular, is to act in a manner befitting his conservative christian values. His punishments display a fierce loyalty to the old saying, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, and while he clearly loves his family, he is unable or unwilling to show mercy and compassion which remain a cornerstone of Christianity. It is through The Pastor that we obtain the name for the film; the white ribbon that the repentant children must wear is a visual reminder of the purity and holiness to which they must aspire.
The Doctor delivers one of the most vindictive speechs ever heard in a movie as he rejects the woman who loves him. He, like the other fathers in the movie, abuses his children, which in his case at least, reveals his own self loathing.
It is the children therefore who deserve the focus as they live out their conflicting desires of comforming to their parents expectations and the frustrations of their childlike natures. Their actions, both large and small, swing between revenge and guilt.
Haneke says in an interview that his desire as a filmmaker is to raise questions, not answer them. This is true of all his films. There is a mystery of sorts in this film. There is also a question of moral ambiguity of greater import that hopefully leads us as modern viewers to question our own fixed ideals to include balance, reason, grace and love. 4 out of 5.