The White Ribbon: a new Haneke masterpiece

Nov 13, 2009
Rachel Helyer-Donaldson

First period film from the director of ‘Hidden’ addresses the beginnings of fanaticism

The Austrian director Michael Haneke is already arguably one of the decade's finest filmmakers and one of the most prolific. But the 67-year-old's latest film, The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in May, looks set to become his most acclaimed yet.
Haneke's body of work is bleak, uncompromising and deals with themes of social alienation and the paralysing effects of mass media. Yet he has gained considerable mainstream success in recent years, especially with his 2005 film Hidden which won a clutch of awards, including best director at Cannes, and grossed more than £1m in Britain. It starred Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteil as Parisian intellectuals terrorised by an anonymous stalker.
The White Ribbon is Haneke's 10th film, not bad considering he only turned to feature film-making 20 years ago, after a career as a film critic and TV director. It is his first period film.

Set on the eve of the First World War in 1913, and shot in black and white, it centres on a north German village where strange crimes and unexplained acts of violence are being committed. The 'white ribbon' of the title refers to the bands of shame that are tied round the arms of naughty children who are subjected to extreme discipline and even (in one case) sexual abuse.
Many critics have theorised that Haneke is trying to explain the beginnings of fascism - that the generation of children who carry out these random acts of cruelty will grow up to be the generation that spawns Nazi Germany.
Haneke told the Guardian recently that the children in the film are the Nazi generation, but that central to the film is something more universal. "I could do a film about modern-day Iran and ask the same question: how does fanaticism start? That's the core of the film," he said. "In places where people are suffering, they become very receptive to ideology because they're looking for something to clutch hold of, a straw that will take them out of that misery."


Nigel Andrews, Financial Times: "In a world where people have learnt for generations to lay down their minds and souls on sacrificial altars to authority figures, temporal or spiritual, creditable or spurious, it seems possible to argue – and Haneke surely does – that none is without guilt just as none, in this world of paradox and perplexity, is quite without innocence." (Verdict: five stars out of five)

Sukhdev Sandhu, Daily Telegraph: "[Haneke has] produced the best film of his career... I see it as a very contemporary story, one that could apply to any number of Middle Eastern countries, about the ways, at once trivial, mysterious and infinitely important, that terror creeps up on the state. And how easily a potentially righteous, even revolutionary violence can eat its own people." (Verdict: five stars out of five)

Dave Calhoun, Time Out: "[Haneke's] least aggressive and most mature film – a masterpiece from a director who is increasingly making a habit of them." (Verdict: five stars out of five)

Wendy Ide, Times: "Shot in sober black and white, with no musical score and told with a stately and deliberate pace, The White Ribbon is infused with a fascinatingly austere cruelty."

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