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The White Ribbon

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Michael Haneke
­­­­Certificate 15, 144 mins


Haneke's first period drama for the big screen is set in 1913-14 in a north German Protestant town where strange accidents befall the community. A doctor, riding a regular route, is brought down and injured by a wire between two trees. The wife of a farm labourer is killed when factory floorboards give way beneath her. Children are abducted. A baby's window is left open in midwinter. A building burns. But who is - or are - responsible?

The film sets out its cast of characters in terms of the social hierarchy. The landowning classes are represented by the local baron, his wife and their child; the professional classes by a widowed doctor, the midwife 'who has made herself useful to him', the baron's steward, the village pastor and the local teacher (also the narrator) who is courting the nanny of the baron's son; the working classes by numerous agricultural labourers who generally feature less prominently in the story. The village children too play a prominent role.

The film is black and white, the language German. Always something of a perfectionist, Haneke is as rigorous with the images he puts on screen as he has ever been. A scene in which the pastor administers corporal punishment to his children is constructed around a view of a closed door, which the camera moves away from and  returns to - and from which the eldest boy must come to fetch the cane.

Such studied, painstaking mise en scène allows the director to deliver some great material, giving away only the information he intends and no more, leaving the audience to do much of the work themselves. The kitchen scene in which the doctor, having had sex with the midwife, tells her she disgusts him is devastatingly cruel in its simplicity. The story tackles a gamut of difficult areas - sometimes head on, sometimes more obliquely - for instance, the class system, the role of punishment in organised religion, child abuse, the way a society deals with the idea and fact of death and mortality and more.

It's rather like watching a society having its dirty laundry dragged out, amid facts, half truths and hearsay. The children are a group reminiscent of the malevolent aliens in Village Of The Damned, but as in Twin Peaks there are many others with motives for the crimes, and Haneke refuses to hand us easy solutions to his compelling riddles. The teacher and the nanny, both outsiders, are arguably the only two untainted characters in the fallen world of the village. Witness the scene in which he plans to take her on a surprise picnic, at which she panics fearing his motives to be less than pure, in response to which he simply turns the horse and cart around to cancel the honestly-intentioned but easily misinterpreted outing. Yet if the pair are supposed to be good, there's something ineffectual about them, powerless in the face of the corruption underpinning everything. And since it's the teacher telling the story, we only hear what he knows and deduces.

At the end, war is declared and the teacher tells us he left the village never to return. But the viewer may well want to return to this extraordinary puzzle of a film to try and piece the events together on subsequent viewings. It's been a long time since Haneke's made anything of quite the same stature as the original Funny Games or The Piano Teacher, despite the overrated Hidden. The White Ribbon, however, marks a return to form.

Jeremy Clarke