The White Ribbon is a dark, quiet, brooding film which may isolate and divide many of its viewers, but those who truly engage themselves within its world will be surprised, disturbed, and deeply affected by the film’s uniquely brutal beauty.
Taking place in a small village in Germany the year before the outbreak of the First World War, the film follows the lives of several different characters. There is the local pastor, a serious, brutal man who, in the beginning of the film, punishes two of his children for staying out after dark by refusing them food and beating them with a cane. He later ties a white ribbon around their arms to remind them of purity and morality. There is also the local doctor, his daughter Anna, the school-teacher, and the Felder family, a poor family of farmers who are struck by tragedy when their mother dies in a work accident.
The village is plagued by a series of seemingly random acts of violence and malice. It begins when the local doctor is tripped on a wire while riding his horse, then continues with the torturing of the Baron’s son and the burning of a barn. Nobody in the village has any idea of who could be responsible for the crimes, but the school-teacher believes the children may have the anser.
This film is not an everyday ‘whodunit’ mystery, where the audience guesses who is behind the crime only to have the entire mystery wrapped up nice and tidy in the third act. Master director Michael Haneke doesn’t wrap the conclusion in a candy-colored ribbon and hand it to the audience. The ending is ambiguous in that the audience can come to their own conclusions as to who did what or if one character is right or wrong. This may be new to many viewers, but such a bold style of film-making is quite refreshing to see in a world of remakes and what-have-yous.
That isn’t to say the film is at all unsatisfying. The entire film is a series of scenes which can shock, disturb, surprise, or enlighten the viewer. The plot is thick and involving in that every scene is important to the narrative. Not a second is spared, and every frame has a meaning. The cinematography of the film is superb. It was filmed in color then rendered into black & white. This was a wise decision on Haneke’s part, not only because the black &white perfectly suits the dark tone and setting of the film, but also because it resulted in beautiful, sometimes mesmerizing images which can linger in the mind for days on end.
I remember first reading about The White Ribbon winning the palm D’or (grand prize award) at the prestigious Cannes film festival early last year. Little did I know that it would be almost an entire year before I would get to see the film in American theaters. I was slightly disappointed when I actually went to see the film only to realize that my brother and I were the only ones in the theater. I strongly urge you to see this film, as I believe it is one of the most original and thought-provoking films of the last ten years.