Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has already been exterminated, exfoliated and hermaneuticized, and will undoubtedly be the subject of numerous PhD theses. But let’s cut to the chase. The film’s historical context, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarejevo, immediately forces the viewer to pluck out his or her retrospectroscope. Should the viewer call to mind Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which throws cold water on the banality-of-evil theory invoked by Hannah Arendt in Eichman in Jerusalem, or turn to Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power to understand the impending sense of doom and horror that grows amidst Haneke’s astonishing, unflinchingly beautiful set pieces? Christian Berger’s cinematography owes more to Zeno and Parmenides of the Eleatic School of pre-Socratic philosophy than to film-school technique, as his black and white shots strive towards a prison-like stasis. It is almost disturbing to detect motion in some of the compositions, which are interrupted by movements so discreet that we at first mistake them for trompe l’oeil.
Etiology and innocence are the themes that Haneke (The Piano Player, Caché) is playing with, and his mise en scène is virtually inextricable from the narration. The oppressive luminescence of sunlight on snow is one of the recurring images in this exploration of human sadism and childhood’s lack of innocence. The butchering of an already crippled bird, the torture of two children (one retarded), the tripping of a horse and rider, an adolescent put to sleep with his hands tied to preempt masturbation—these are just a few of the images woven into a tapestry of evil that becomes a work of great beauty. Evil beauty is not an oxymoron if we consider The Divine Comedy, or Nancy Milford’s book about Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty. Emily Dickinson's memorable line, “Split the lark and you’ll find the music,” gives a hint what Haneke’s getting at, only in this case it’s the music that leads to a dead bird. One can’t help can’t help but think of Bergman’s Winter Light. Haneke’s stern pastor is a dead ringer for Gunnar Bjornstand, who plays a similar role in the Bergman film. The two cinematic personae are due for a tête a tête.
[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]