Sometimes you come across films which you know you could watch again, straightaway, and this is one. Until last year, I’d never seen a Haneke film, and now I’ve seen several. This is the best one. It’s somehow like the John Wyndham novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, in that it focuses on children, but it is much more than that (there was a film, Village of the Damned, made of the Wyndham novel, and there are odd echoes). It’s set in 1913, in Germany, and it weaves together several strands of plot, moving at a very leisurely pace, using no music, and using a voiceover (very hard to do); and it’s shot in black-and-white. As with Caché (Hidden), Haneke draws you into a very complex plot, and leaves the fim without resolving what has happened, leaves you talking to yourself about the implications of not knowing how things turned out.
The film begins with a mystery: who tried to kill the local doctor by stretching a tripwire across the entrance to his property, killing his horse, nearly killing him? And who spirited the tripwire away? Who, later, kidnapped and hurt the local landowner’s son? There are countless examples of disturbing acts of what seem like revenge, and yet could also be simply brutality (none of these are lingered on, and some are hardly shown). As the film proceeds, we can see that there are plenty of grounds for grudges to be held. The landowner keeps the village, half of whose occupants he employs, in a state of angry dependency. The doctor (who recovers) is shown to be startlingly callous to his lover, the midwife. The local pastor runs his family with a riding-crop and quiet homilies about shame – the white ribbon of the title is what he forces any recalcitrant child to wear until they are proved to be ‘pure’.
The narrator is the schoolmaster, looking back after many years, and not at all sure if he understands what has happened. We see him as a young man, falling in love with the young nanny employed by the landowner: their mutual courtship is funny, sweet, touching. When she is peremptorily sacked (for no real reason), he takes her in. In one of the greatest scenes, he bikes many miles to ask for her father’s permission. The father insists that they wait a year. the pair of them at one point meet, and the schoolmaster (essentially the innocent at the heart of the village) takes her in a pony and trap with a picnic to a wood. As they approach the wood, she insists that she cannot go there. Later the midwife’s Down’s syndrome son is abducted in the same place. Did the sweet and charming young nanny know? It seems unlikely: but Haneke almost never explains why people in the village do what they do. In fact, to tantalise us, he does solve a couple of mysteries – we know who destroyed the landownert’s prize cabbage-patch, for instance – but the schoolmaster is unable, after many years, to do other than say what went on, not why, or by whom, in most cases.
This leaves us with a film which smoulders with resentment, which operates in a fug of suspicion, one in which high-minded morality is hand-in-hand wth private injustices. The film ends with news of the assassination in Sarajevo, so we know what’s coming next. These are the Germans who will be forced to fight two wars. These are the children who will be Hitler’s generation. Does the film make this explicit? Not a bit of it.
No other film director (he is also the writer) is in such control of his material, and so clever at creating satisfaction out of unresolved plots. It’s a hypnotic film, stealthy, insidious and darkly sentimental, all at the same time. It was nominated for a ‘Foreign Language Film’ Oscar. That category looks increasingly redundant. This is the best film of the last decade, by far. It is tonally perfect, calmly edited, filled with glimpses of another world. A world which might be ours, of course, a hundred years later.