I’ve always enjoyed foreign films in the manner with which it can convey the bleakest themes through the suggestion of the emotions that can be awakened through its screenplay. Shot in its entirety in black and white with a near minimalist style of perspective-focused cinematography, filmmaker Michael Haneke is quite calculating when it comes to delivering art house shock value. Granted his films are usually for the esoteric few, as he unveils his story through the narration of a school teacher that tells of a disturbing tale of deception, mistrust and oppression, suspicion and accusations that faces a small German village before World War One.
The film won “Best Foreign Film” in the 2009 Golden Globes and was nominated for the same category in the Academy awards. It was also a recipient of the Palme d’Or award at Cannes.
“The White Ribbon” begins when the village doctor falls because of a trip wire that felled his horse that leads up to his stay in a hospital in town. This incident seemingly triggers the beginning of sadistic events that stuns this small village as a school teacher (Christian Friedel) recalls the events that led to the collapse of this estate because of the men who ruled the place through medicine, religion, intimidation and education that provokes a feeling of discontent and abuse that falls through every household in the area. There is something terribly wrong in this village as the abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of the strange occurrences, as these events slowly become an insane ritual while the threat of war looms in the horizon.
The film is broken down into small stories of different households and how these people set up the village mood and temperament. The emotionally inspired, yet detached narration by the schoolteacher was quite effective in bringing forth a slow yet calculated sensation of the oppressed, as he details the horrific events that happened in that village before WWI. The film sidesteps the usual conventions of graphic shock value and leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination; the screenplay requires a lot of reading between the lines, so if you are not used to this type of filmmaking, you had better stay away from this film. There is no soundtrack used by the direction and yet the emotion is felt through its camerawork, close ups and the school teacher’s narration.
“The White Ribbon” is a carefully stitched together as it introduces its areas of suppression, unspoken discontent, disease and violence as it slowly immerses you into its screenplay. The characters in the film are the ones that regulate the film’s pace so the first half has a very sleepy feel. The motivations behind the attack on the village doctor isn’t fully revealed as is his implied perverse affairs, but it is enough to keep the viewer on the edge of his seat. The Baron represents the unspoken lordship that is about the estate, as he is surrounded by folks who are either dependent or with his undeclared rule.
The film’s themes of tradition and religion as things that can contort or disrupt one’s feelings, thinking and maybe even warp one’s conscious mind into a build up that can have seriously dire consequences when left to explode. The negative sides of religion, tradition and practices are the film’s most potent tool, as we become reminded that single-minded thinking can harm as well as nurture. It is all in the manner it is wielded really, but suppression is never key to development and progress. The film’s harsh images of discipline and violation are simply disturbing despite the fact that most of its reality are hinted at, as it builds slowly to the film’s bleaker and depressing second half.
But despite the film’s depressing themes and mood, it does remember to inject a little light in its proceedings. The director’s nihilistic approach is balanced by the light-hearted romance between a virginal nanny named Eva and the schoolteacher. Their relationship offers an idea that amidst this situation, two lovers can still find each other and that love can bloom as long as it is motivated by the right emotions and motivations. The two are traditional, and they represent the brighter side of tradition and religious beliefs as they treat each other with respect and honor; but there is a question of its motivations, as it is still clearly a sign of these times.
“The White Ribbon” is a mystery surrounded by another mystery. Why did all these things happen and who is truly responsible? The film has an ambiance as seen through the eyes of a man who was there but like most of the others, knew very little. The film is horrific and yet it isn’t a horror film, it is a drama and yet it feels rather detached; I believe in Haneke’s eyes, this is a way to approach the awful reality of this repressed society since its questions and answers can be debated in a number of different ways. Just who are and what is truly to blame?
Highly Recommended! [4 Out of 5 Stars]
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