The year is 1913 and in this German village all would appear to be well on the surface, that is until a strange incident occurs as the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is riding home from his rounds when he reaches the field next to his house. On galloping up to the garden, he finds someone has drawn a wire between two trees which trips the animal and sends the doctor flying, breaking his arm in the fall. Who could have done such a thing? When the authorities try to investigate they are at a loss to explain, for by the time they get to the scene of the crime the wire has been removed, assuming it was ever there...
And because of that, World War II happened. That was the premise of Michael Haneke's investigation into national evil, although naturally with this director there was more to it than one incident, but he was keeping his cards close to his chest, as with his previous film Caché leaving the ultimate explanation to the audience to figure out to their own satisfaction, which was difficult when he wasn't offering the whole story. That was on a narrative level, anyway, as every detail we need to piece together who was really carrying out the crimes in the village are not forthcoming, yet in interviews Haneke was happy to let us in on his schemes: this was about how the Nazis were born.
Therefore what we were intended to take away from The White Ribbon (a reference to a symbol of purity tied around certain children's arms for being "good") was just how fascism was bred in the generation who are mere infants at the point in time we join the story. That old "what if?" about whether you could go back in time and kill Hitler appeared to have been at the back of Haneke's mind, whether consciously brought out in this or not, so we had to see if we could perceive the seeds of that global tragedy within the youngsters who to our modern eyes should have been innocents. Of course, with this filmmaker the concept of innocence was largely relative, as if he didn't buy into that mindset.
Not even the children were blameless when it came to the enormity of the Nazis, would appear to be the message, but there was an issue here in that it was all very well not to see the entire nation as unblemished by the horror they were to have a hand in at this stage in history, but it didn't do very much by way of explanation. What we were offered was rather basic guilty town business not out of place in a torrid soap opera or Western, or a combination of both, which may have spoken to the movies' handling of such a huge matter but was less than illuminating otherwise when you had to take in the real world. Haneke claimed he had based the crimes on actual incidents, which should have put them under a microscope.
However, he preferred to keep things frustratingly vague except where the effects of the crimes were concerned, so we had scenes of villagers finding a child hung upside down and beaten for example, but we never found out who did it, suggesting there was no one individual behind these events and the whole community had allowed it to happen merely by dint of their insidious corruption. Are we meant to suspect the children? Has the adult world's evil bled through to their offspring and taken root, because we can see the older generation are not as respectable as they would like to present themselves? Certain sequences expose the grown-ups as very much less than admirable, though the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who passes for the main character is probably the best of them, working out what is going on and thinking the children are the culprits, though even then Haneke seems to criticise him for not going far enough, his timidity in matters of the heart indicating he lacks the instinct to prevent the bigger picture coming into play. But the bottom line was, Haneke faltered finding easy answers.