Directed by Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon is a mystery-drama that is based in a small village in Germany just before the outbreak of World War I. Like many other reviewers have, I would somewhat advise to see this movie without knowing too much about it. All you need to know is that this is probably an instant classic in my book, and knowing too much about the story would deprive you of the full effect the first viewing should have on the viewer.
The film follows the events taking place in the fictional village of Eichwald, as the story is being narrated by the village school teacher. Eichwald is a very small village, everybody is under the rule of the Baron. The Baron employs over half the village as laborers, and lives what is apparently a very relaxed life with his wife and his three children. Along with the Baron, the town is run by the Pastor, the doctor, the school teacher, and the Steward. Nameless they remain, powerful figures they are among the town. The film begins with the doctor being involved in a terrible accident horse riding accident. Someone, among the village, tripped the doctor and his horse by tying a wire in between two trees. While the doctor is sent to a hospital in a nearby town, the question of who did it still remains in the minds of everyone in the village. What follows is a series of attacks from an unknown culprit with nobody seemingly able to connect any of the attacks into a single motive.
Along the way, we learn much about the villagers and everyday life in the early 20th century. Work is hard, times are rough, and the parents are some of the strictest guardians you will see on film. Most of the discipline comes from the Pastor, who doesn’t hesitate to whip his own children with a cane for being late to dinner. Religion is enforced to a high degree, even to a point as to where the movie gets it’s name from. As a sign of purity and innocence, the Pastor forces children who have strayed away from such values to wear a white ribbon on their arm and as a hair piece. This is supposed to give them a constant reminder of how they should act, remembering the ideals that their father has implemented in them. With this, Haneke is able to deliver certain themes such as the village’s male dominated hierarchy, and some others that you won’t even realize that are there until the film is over. This is something that I wish I could elaborate more on, because it offers up such a great conversation starter, but I don’t want to ruin this movie for you in any possible way. Good thing people are allowed to comment on such posts, eh?
While the film is narrated by the school teacher, much of the film takes place away from the teacher. For most of his screen time, he is in a love story with a much younger girl that works as a baby sitter for the Baroness. This love is put to the test after the girl is unfairly fired, and she is forced to move back home in a neighboring village. When he’s not traveling to visit her, he begins to try and piece together the series of attacks that have plagued the town as of late. Nobody knows anything though, and hardly anybody trusts each other. As we learn more about the different villagers, it often leaves us in shock to learn of the events that take place within their own homes. After the entire viewing, one starts to realize exactly how these horrible attacks could possibly be taking place in such a small village. Like I said before, this movie brings up a good number of themes that stem from a number of places, most of all religion and politics. While the movie is never really resolved, one can put together the pieces and come up with a wide variety of opinions.
Shot in black and white, the movie is visually stunning. If I had popped this movie in the DVD player without reading when it was made, I would’ve sworn on my life that it was made no later 1960. Often using long single shots, this film paints the scene with such realism you can’t help but just sit back and admire what you are watching. DP Christian Berger is up for an Oscar here in two days, and this small foreign flick could very easily steal that award away from the giant blue aliens. Converting the footage to black and white was the absolute best idea that Haneke could have had for this film. One could even go as far as comparing the coloring of the film to some of the themes that take place within the film. Along with the camera work, the acting is spot on with every character. Not a single beat is missed with any of the casting, even with the children. It’s rumored that over 7,000 children were brought in and auditioned for these roles, and they were able to bring in the very best of the bunch. To pick out a single performance that you liked more than others is nearly impossible.
A visual treat, The White Ribbon is a movie that will not only be a spectacle for you to glare at, but also a mysterious film that will work your mind just as much as it delights your eyes. This is a classic in the making, and couldn’t get a higher recommendation from me.
Notes: 144 minutes. Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality. Seen in German with English subtitles.