Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" could be considered a mystery in that things happen for no apparent reason. The Doctor (Rainer Bock) breaks his arm after falling off his horse, which tripped over a wire strung between two trees. Not long after, someone abducts the eldest son of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur); he isn't found until the next morning, at which point it's discovered that he had been bound and beaten with a cane. A barn owned by the Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) is burned to the ground. The mentally challenged son of the Midwife (Susanne Lothar) is viciously attacked and almost blinded. Why is all of this happening? Are they acts of revenge? Are they punishments for the sin of weakness? Are they the beginnings of war, intolerance, and terrorism? Your guess is as good as mine. This movie isn't about solutions.
What is it about, then? The story takes place in the days before World War I, when authority was not questioned and life was lived according to much simpler routines. The setting is a German farming community, which has maintained stability by not upsetting the "natural order"; it was expected that the Baron would own the land, the men would have control over their women and children, and the peasants would not have the same rights as their superiors. The Pastor, for example, raises his children not to love God so much as fear Him, and he continuously instills the idea that they must feel guilty for everything that they do. So as to remind them of the path of righteousness from which they have strayed, he ties a white ribbon onto their arms - a symbol of purity.
But in spite of outward appearances, purity is not something to be found behind closed doors. The Doctor, so kind and caring with his patients, grossly mistreats the Midwife and sexually abuses his daughter on a regular basis. The Baron is a demanding man who does what he wishes with no regard for anyone else, including his own workers. But was he, in fact, responsible for the death of a local woman? Or was it an accident? The woman's husband, while grieving, knows that he can't prove it either way. The woman's son, on the other hand, is convinced of the Baron's guilt. This leads to an act of retribution that generates even more hostility amongst the villagers. By then, memories of the previous incidents rise to the surface. Suspicion spreads. Distrust builds. People suffer.
All this is told from the point of view of the Schoolteacher, who narrates as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) and is seen as a young man (Christian Friedel). Even though he courts a shy young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch), he's not a participant so much as an observer, and he begins the film with a direct statement: "I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered." Indeed, the film plays not as an intimate portrait but as an examination of the facts - cold, hard, and, to the best of its ability, honest. We see into the lives of the villagers, and yet we're emotionally and physically kept at a distance, which probably accounts for the film's beautiful yet haunting black and white photography. It would also account for specific shots that, in the hands of a different director, would reveal everything in graphic detail.
Consider the scene in which the Pastor lashes his children as punishment for lying and disobedience; rather than actually show the act and its emotional aftermath, Haneke films the entire scene from outside the room with the door closed, and he ends it before the act is finished. Also consider a long shot of a coffin being wheeled out of the village on its way to the cemetery; the camera observes it from a far away location, never once cutting to the faces of the mourners flocking behind the carriage. This is not the kind of film that gives closure. It doesn't even pretend that such a thing exists.
The real genius of this film, however, is that the intricate subtexts are in service of a relatively simple story. We may not have all the answers, but at the same time, the goal is not to be confusing; the goal is to present the facts as accurately as possible, at which point we come to our own conclusions. If there are any to come to. Maybe we're being told that, when a repressive way of life is preferred for the sake of maintaining the status quo, a different and more evil form of repression will eventually surface. It could be a totalitarian government. It could be religious extremism. It could even be genocide. Who knows? Anything is possible. "The White Ribbon" is a superb film - carefully paced and cleverly structured, mysterious but not gimmicky, subtle but not lacking substance.
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 … more
Michael Haneke's latest may well be his greatest. It's a masterful depiction of the unraveling of a village, in the years leading up to the first World War. It's a dark film, but I don't think it's bleak. It is narrated by a hopeful young teacher, whose own sights are raised above the pettiness and insensitivity and unspoken class rivalries that lead the villagers to be mutually suspicious. At first it is his lofty ideals, his generous spirit and the fact that while he is not naive he nevertheless … more
A gripping and suspenseful drama courtesy of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. The film takes place in a rather dysfunctional small community where all the community members hold dark secrets. Amidst a litany of sins, everything from incestuous abuse to severe punishment of children, a series of strange "incidents" occur that change the face of the town and reveal its true nature. The film is a very bleak character-driven mystery that excels at getting the viewer engaged, but perhaps … more
In a small village in Northern Germany in 1916 a series of bizarre and horrid things happen. There is no explanation for these events, only mute rumors and musings in a town confined by strict Protestant rules of judgment and behavior. The town Doctor on horseback is tripped by a trap wire hidden on a path, is injured, and must leave town for a hospital treatment for a while: upon return we learn that the town doctor is anything but kind in his verbal and physical abuse of his office manager/mistress … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Controversy-courting director Michael Haneke (CACHE) earned the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 2009 for this arresting drama set just before World War I. In a small German village, a number of unexplained accidents beset the schoolchildren and their parents. Though they at first appear coincidental, it begins to seem that they are not, in fact, accidents at all.