The White Ribbon
Northern Germany. Not long before World War I.
A baron. A doctor. A teacher. A young nanny. A pastor. A farmer. Their children. Some bask in the glories of empire and association while others endure hardship and routine. It is a time of growing tension, uncertainty and fraying trust.
Things begin to happen. Explanations elude the townspeople. Authorities arrive but do little but confirm what is already known. Someone is responsible.
This is the backdrop for “The White Ribbon,” a haunting film that questions the matter of evil and may leave some upset with its conclusions.
The director is Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur responsible for the remarkable “Cache” and the punishing “Funny Games.” His works polarize. But his talents are singular. He is doubtlessly one of the most assured, if enigmatic, filmmakers working today. A master of craft. “The White Ribbon” focuses on a period untouched in his oeuvre and utilizes a palette that stands in obvious contrast (more on that in a moment) to other Haneke films. It also elevates an already impressive body of work.
Its visuals are striking and durable, presented in black and white. I understand “The White Ribbon” was not filmed this way but captured in full colour and left to bleed out until its images stood only as lost photographs, unstitched from time. The landscape is all pregnant shades of dark and light. How black the fitted dresses of the women; how blinding an endless field covered in fresh snow. We sense this strange place knows more about its people than it shares. What lurks behind a child’s shadow in the darkness of an unlit room? What horrors are allowed to unfold is the starkness of white light? And what to make of the children.
Slowly, “The White Ribbon” reveals fractures in the town’s tightening machine. Every scene bears Haneke’s mark. Few North American directors can match the composition of his images. Or generate suspense by revealing so little. Fewer still afford their stories the patience to unspool at their own measured velocity, peeling back layer upon layer until stopping just before… our conclusions can be made certain, perhaps.
Connections are alternately revealed and muddled. Germany’s procession toward 1914 will not stop. Claustrophobia is inescapable. Where it leads, I will not say. But, with Haneke, everything we spot casts a shadow. And yet, it is certain there is so much we don’t see.
Is the identity, even the motives, of those responsible for terrible crimes Haneke’s primary interest? I don’t think so. In “The White Ribbon,” the tricky nature of innocence and the consequences of compliance and shame fascinate him more. Particularly in how we react to the events visited on his characters. What they cause us to thirst for. What we believe constitutes dark and light.
Baron – Ulrich Tukur
Midwife - Susanne Lothar
Teacher - Christian Friedel
Pastor - Burghart Klaussner
Eva - Leonie Benesch
Narrator – Ernst Jacobi
Written and directed by Michael Haneke.
In German, Italian, Polish and Latin with English subtitles.
Running time: 145 minutes.