The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

Film review by: Witney Seibold

Told like a fable, plotted like a 19th century novel, subtle as a poem, and as damning as the early works of Nietzsche, Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” provides an intellectual hammer that will condemn provincial life, fascism, groupthink, and guilt tactics that seems to mark any form of civilization at one point. A few parallels to the First World War would indicate that “The White Ribbon” is a dissection of the German national character, which it is, but it also serves as a cautionary tale about social repression, authoritarian resentment, and natural petty vengeance for imagined transgressions, that is unseen outside of literature. Hanake’s film is no picnic, and, as is his wont, seems to eschew some of the more shocking moments into incidental asides, but the impact is only made greater by the masterful skill he puts into his pacing and storytelling. No other film this year has hit me in the brain so deeply. I will cautiously call “The White Ribbon” the best film of 2009.

We are introduced to an unnamed village in Northern Germany in the early years of the twentieth century. The film is narrated by an elderly teacher, remembering his youth in this village. The film is shot in a flatly gorgeous black-and-white that seems to more strongly delineate the divisive personal politicking to come. Immediately, the town’s doctor (Rainer Bock) suffers an accident, his horse tripping over a carefully placed wire. The schoolteacher (Christian Friedel in the film, narrated by Ernst Jacobi) is kind of a milquetoast type, and is too distracted by his crush on Eva (Leonie Benesch) to notice other strange happenings in the town. For one, the children of the local pastor (Burghart Klaußner) are regularly beaten, and forced to wear white ribbons on their arms or in their hair. The white ribbon represents purity and innocence, but serves more like a scarlet letter of shame and ostracism. Another thing, the doctor’s assistant and her retarded son seem to be hiding something.

And accidents are occurring all over the village, much to the chagrin of the pompous and pusillanimous Baron (Ulrich Tukur). A child is kidnapped and tortured in the woods. A barn is set on fire. A woman dies accidentally in the fields. Who is to blame? How do we track this down? Why will no one be forthcoming about anything? Why is there so much fear?

The answer to that last question seems to be the meat of Haneke’s film, and his answer is a chilling one: that’s just the way the repressive backwoods society evolved, and that’s how contemporary politics is now being played.

Despite the sinister air of “The White Ribbon,” there is nothing cheap or showy about its presentation. There are no simple explanations, and there will be no moments of predictable emotional catharsis. Haneke, in most of his films, is fond of presenting us with characters we loathe or secretly with their undoing, but are powerless to argue with, and who will receive no retribution for their villainy. Think of the bad guys in his comparatively grandstanding “Funny Games.”

“The White Ribbon” plays like George Eliot in hell. Like Thomas Mann without the wit or hope. It’s a novel in filmic form, and a daring new application of cinema to tell an importantly profound message about the fearful workings of the human mind.

Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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