The award winning film by Michael Haneke shows one society, and within it – one family in a German village in the north of the country, just before the start of World War I. The primary idea, according to the director, was to show the roots of evil. Even though the story resembles the traditional. It is shown immediately that something is wrong within the society, and yet there is no culprit. The events are told from the point of view of the narrator who was a boy, when he events were happening. All of the misfortunes in the village take place before the start of World War I, when the rest of the world enters the age of immense bloodshed culminating in World War II.
The viewers are initially presented with the nice looking town of Eichwald where everything flows logically without irregularities. There is the usual pastor, who tends to scold children even for smaller misbehaving and makes them wear white ribbons as the sign of them having been bad but trying not to resort to bad behaviour ever again. The town is presided over by a local baron, who is the lord of his manor. Most of the people are usual farm workers. Nothing disrupts the peaceful sleepy routine.
Suddenly, a string of events starts happening, which disrupts the being of the village’s dwellers immensely. Somebody stretches a wire string between two trees on the doctor’s path prompting him to fall from the horse and injure himself. One farmer’s wife dies at the sawmill, because the floorboards are rotten and break. Her husband, unable to deal with his grief, hangs himself shortly thereafter. Then the baron’s song Sigi goes missing and is recovered lately at the sawmill, tied up and badly beaten. Then the barn at the manor burns down quickly. The baroness confesses to her husband that she is in love with another man. The steward’s daughter talks about a violent dream fearing that the midwife’s handicapped son might be killed or attacked. It does happen indeed later, and the boy was almost blinded. The pastor’s daughter is shown to open the cage with the parrot, and the bird is found later to have been killed by impalement. The midwife claims that she has evidence regarding the perpetrator and borrows a bicycle from the village teacher to go into town. She and her son are never seen again. The perpetrators of these events are never shown throughout the film. The director provides some information regarding the whereabouts of various individuals. The mystery is not revealed even when the film is over. The finale shows that World War I erupts while the feelings of discontent and distrust in the village remain.
The reason for the director holding on to answers for so many questions posed in the film is simple. The director invites the viewers to take part in the investigation. It does not matter that the clues do not quite add up and the viewers are still left without any clear information on the personality of the criminal or criminals. The message here is that all people in the village are not as innocent as they may seem and that many could have done the crimes described above for various motives. At the same time, the director was obviously more interested to translate the feeling of angst that people started having as the result of this series of unfortunate events, many of which did not have clearly any perpetrator behind them. The director showed how the collective conscious of the village’s society foreshadowed the war and all the misery it brought about including the horrible economic crisis in the country and yet another war afterwards.