Village of the Damned

Michael Haneke, 2009

Children scare me sometimes, especially über precocious ones. Scheming and seething adults in the form of cute and supposedly innocent children. You know, those kids who look at you as if they can read your very thoughts while mentally indicting you for having those thoughts — whatever they may be. The alien kids in Village of the Damned, the children of the corn, and the young ones in The White Ribbon. Yeah. You better not mess with them.

The kids in The White Ribbon don't have supernatural powers or anything; what makes them creepy is their rigid upbringing and how some of them would grow up to be Adolf Hitler's followers.

GERMANY, some years before World War I — A quiet village is plagued by strange events. The village doctor (Rainer Bock) has an "accident" while on horseback. The farmer's wife dies after a sawmill "accident." The baron's son (Fion Mutert) is publicly humiliated. The baron's barn is burned down, intentionally it seemed. The midwife's son (Eddy Grahl) is publicly violated.

The strange events seem like elaborate and ritualistic punishments. Punishment for what? Haneke does here what he did in Caché; he uses the punishments as a MacGuffin to get to the core of the adult characters, to unmask them. As the film moves on, we suspect the children — "headed" by Klara, the pastor's daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus) — to be the culprits.

"Who are doing those things?" That's probably the question we shouldn't ask while watching the film. I think the question we should be asking is this: "Do these people deserve what's happening to them?" That's exactly the question Haneke aims to answer during the subsequent scenes.

The farmer and his wife, the baron's son, the midwife's son, the barn, and even the cabbages — they don't deserve what's been done to them. Their only "sin" is that they are connected to the real culprits: the doctor who's been having an affair with the midwife (Susanne Lothar) while molesting his daughter (Roxane Duran) at the same time, the baron (Ulrich Tukur) who enslaves the poor, the baron's steward (Josef Bierbichler) who is implied to be a pedo, and the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who observes the "teach and preach" rule but never walks the talk.

Haneke discusses classism (the baron), religion (the pastor), and depravity (the doctor and the baron's steward). As Haneke unveils the adults' dark side, we realize that the village — the children, the women, and the poor — is dominated by those damned characters. Haneke also tackles mortality in one scene.

The film has a Bergmanesque feel into it; not just the cinematography, but the narrative as well. It somehow reminds me of Ingmar Bergman's films, most especially the faith trilogy. Even the actor who plays the pastor looks like Gunnar Björnstrand, one of Bergman's superstars.

This is not my favorite Haneke film, but it's right there as one of his best. The White Ribbon is almost two hours long. The film is in black and white; probably to exude a feeling of being trapped and suffocated in a strict environment, something which the children and women in the film are experiencing. The White Ribbon wouldn't be as eerily compelling as it is if it was in color. The film is narrated by the school teacher (Christian Friedel) as an old man (voiced by Ernst Jacobi), a few years after World War II.

Was Haneke — who was born three years before Hitler's death — trying to justify Nazism? I don't think so. Nothing can vindicate evil. As per Haneke's interview with The Guardian, "It's not a coincidence that I chose this period of time in which to present the story. This is the Nazi generation, but I didn't want the film to be reduced to this example, to this specific model. I could do a film about modern-day Iran and ask the same question: how does fanaticism start?"

Furthermore, "It's about the origin of evil, the origin of radicalism and terrorism. But since it's a German film, this is the best example of this situation in German society. I don't want it to be understood solely as a film about German fascism."

Trailer for The White Ribbon:

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