Society is a fragile thing. We live in an uneasy accord with our neighbors and families, bound by concepts and ideas of honor, trust, and understanding. There are cracks, of course, there are always cracks, but we have laws and institutions both written and assumed to plaster over those fissures. Acts of malice require retribution, and failure to properly resolve a conflict or strife leads to a dissemination of our doubt and mistrust outward into the world at large.
So it begins in your tale, The White Ribbon. We begin with lines of narration establishing that our guide through this story is looking back from some indeterminate amount of time in the future. He explains the small town he taught in, and the one day that a strange accident befell the town doctor. A wire was strung between two trees, nearly invisible. The doctor, riding his horse home, failed to see the wire, which tripped his horse, breaking his collar bone. This is the first of many “accidents” that take place in this village, some of them fatal, some of them involving children.
Each incident leads to a slight uptick in the amount of general unease and strife in the town. People begin to make assumptions, cast doubt, and wonder aloud as to the nature of these issues. Some take revenge on perceived enemies, and others band together or drift apart. The actions of certain people change, if not because of the accidents, thaen at least in the light of them.
Your writer and director, Michael Haneke, is a master of crafting films that have this type of energy to them. There are questions that receive no answers, and yet maybe the answer is never revealed because there is no answer. You cannot solve an equation without certain numbers or variables included, and thus the final product of your equation must be forever a mystery because the basic elements required to produce it are nonexistent. You aren’t a movie that refuses to give closure as a means of creating false depth, you are a movie that admits that life is never so simple as to place easy understanding within our reach.
This is a trait that could enrage a lot of people, and yet, frighteningly, this is your point. When confronted with cruel and malicious actions, it baffles us to believe that we might never receive closure. There is a deep seeded sense of corruption and wrongness in a world that denies us our moment of understanding and revelation. To believe that the truth could be held back from us causes us to lash out, scrabble for answers, and infer from limited scope of observation.
Haneke, perhaps to inflame this sense of wrongness and test our resolve in letting go of our lust for closure, drops enough hints and clues to keep us grasping for answers. There is a solid case to be made for any number of citizens in the town. That we are told the story from the point of view of one of them obviously dissuades us from believing he is culpable, but it does lead to a definite tilt toward the parties he finds most suspicious. Thus, the narrative itself strives for a closure that it might not earn or deserve, and the attempt of our narrator to find that closure becomes a further comment on the idea at the heart of your story.
Is it frustrating to dwell for so long in a film that raises questions and nurtures suspicion without ever offering finality to is central mystery? Of course, but that is the issue with wanting to see the truth of life reflected back to us in impeccable and flawless art. There is a clarity in your story that brings into relief the way we live our own lives. This is the solace, the closure to be found in your story – the knowledge that the uncertainty and escalating pain and confusion in our own lives is nothing new, nothing alien, and nothing to be afraid of. Rather, it is the irrational and violent ways in which we react to this uncertainty, and the manner in which we strive to bring unfounded respite to our troubled minds that will doom us. It is no coincidence that this film takes place in the year before World War I. There, too, on a larger scale, suspicion and a lust for certainty lead to rapid allegiances and hurried judgements. Such is the course of our fear of outside forces acting on our presumably healthy worlds.
For a film to admit this to us, and to force us to confront that idea without offering a promise of reward, is courageous. You offer a chance at something rare in cinema: honesty, truth without an epilogue of fabricated consolation. This quality, along side your beautiful cinematography, engrossing performances, and masterful storytelling, makes you a formidable and powerful piece of cinema. Of course, coming from Michael Haneke, this is to be expected – though even for him, you are a surprisingly visceral and profound achievement.
Awed and enlightened,
Brian J. Roan