There is something, a sort of bliss, that exists within evil.
As human beings, regardless of our geographical location, we're infinitely more comfortable with the drama and trauma of evil. We expect evil to be harsh, powerful, raging and relentless. We expect evil to overwhelm and dominate and explode before our eyes.
The media knows this truth. Writers know this truth. Filmmakers know this truth. Thus, they give us the evil we know and the evil we've come to expect.
Evil, however, isn't always so easy to recognize. Just as a pedophile is hardly ever the suspicious looking weirdo across the street, evil is seldom easy to pinpoint. Evil can be pristine and beautiful and gentle and masked within that which is for our own good.
Love is everywhere, indeed. So is evil.
The White Ribbon, winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this past year, isn't so much a film about evil as it is a peaceful film that seemingly exists within a world where the seeds of evil have been sown in a small German village in the years before World War I.
Nearly flawless in its construction by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Cache), The White Ribbon has been said to be a thinly veiled expose' of the seeds of Nazism in rural Germany.
Not so fast.
To interpret The White Ribbon so narrowly would be to painfully restrict Haneke's almost universal vision, creating a rural microcosm of a universal truth about the inevitable failure of revolution and structure and power and, perhaps, even peace itself. There can be no purity, no innocence in a society dependent upon strict definition of order and roles and justice. Where love exists, so must evil. Yet, we can never be truly certain that love does exist nor can we, in reality, so easily define evil.
Sometimes, bad things simply happen. It is neither good nor bad...it simply is truth. There might be a faint hope of learning from our mistakes, but it is inevitable that even our learning will lead to more mistakes.
Good will happen. Bad will happen.
And so it is.
Impeccably shot by D.P. Christian Berger, who received an Oscar nomination himself for his black-and-white sublime imagery here, the village created in The White Ribbon is not far removed from that created by Lars Von Trier in Dogville or, for that matter, more obviously that of Village of the Damned.
This world seems normal, almost eerily so. The White Ribbon begins with a tragedy having befallen the village's doctor is injured when his horse stumbles because of a trip wire. This couldn't possibly be a random accident, a seemingly intentionally placed wire on a path known to be frequented by the doctor.
Yet, perhaps it is random for there is no known explanation. So, life goes on.
There will be other incidents that will soon occur. A barn is burned. A child is murdered. The injured doctor returns home, but becomes increasingly cruel while suspicion is raised about a small group of village children whose appearance seems uncomfortable placid amidst the increasing chaos.
The world is changing.
The village preacher cannot, it seems, instill the virtues of purity in this small community or, for that matter, even within his own children. When he cannot inspire community, he begins to dictate it in ways more evil than inspired.
There is nothing in the village that has the look and feel of evil, no apparent monsters dwelling within. Yet, somehow, evil continues to occur until Haneke's final act when our opening act of apparent violence is matched by an act of violence that will trigger the global expressions of evil in World War I and beyond.
The White Ribbon may, at its essence, be about the roots of Nazism. If so, it is equally about the inherent corruption that exists within each of our political, religious and even familial systems.
The wonder of Haneke's vision and, indeed, his disciplined and precise dialogue cannot be overstated. So often in American cinema, a film such as this one would have been flooded with violent imagery and conflict-driven dialogue to seduce the viewer and manipulate an emotional response. Haneke wisely recognized that such an approach would run counter to the structure of his film, a structure in which evil and peace and order co-exist often with no rhyme nor reason present.
Along with Christian Berger's stellar imagery, The White Ribbon is gifted with a nearly perfect ensemble cast. From the adult men who facilitate our story to the women and children who are, it seems, subjected to it, the entire cast is simply outstanding.
There are films that feel as if they somehow transcend the accepted norms of filmmaking, films that defy the rules and methods and traditions of what is seen in even the arthouse movie theatres. The White Ribbon is such a film. At 144 minutes, The White Ribbon is an engrossing, mesmerizing and involving cinematic journey that is unforgettable as a journey that is both intimate and universal.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic