White Ribbon, The (Austria/Germany/France/Italy, 2009)

January 19, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
White Ribbon, The Poster

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which won the Golden Palm Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is the quintessential art film: slow, demanding, and rewarding for those willing to put forth the intellectual effort necessary to puzzle out its ambiguities. Set in a small German village on the eve of World War I, the movie explores themes that fit in with Haneke's dark view of human nature (as seen in his other films, particularly Funny Games). The film is about the corruption of innocence and how those who foster such corruption can reap the ugly fruits of their labor. The White Ribbon also argues that "righteousness" can be little more than a cloak of disguise - some of the most apparently upright individuals are those with the deepest moral desiccation.

The story is told from the perspective of a school teacher (Christian Friedel), who is gazing back through the mists of time at events in the village during the months leading up to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Strange and disturbing things are happening. The local doctor (Rainer Bock) is seriously injured in a riding accident when his horse is brought down by a wire strung between two trees. A woman is killed while working for the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), with his negligence possibly responsible. Two children have been attacked and abused, including the "retarded" son of the town's midwife (Susanne Lothar). Meanwhile, the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner), concerned about strains of sin and immaturity in the natures of his eldest son and daughter, has sentenced them to wear white ribbons (to remind them of purity) until they can prove their trustworthiness.

Like many directors who are adept at showing the rot underlying seemingly placid locales, Haneke is relentless in illustrating the contradictory elements evident in some of the characters. The Pastor is so concerned about the spiritual health of his children that he neglects their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. His son is tied to a bed at night to prevent masturbation and his daughter's sociopathic tendencies (she uses a pair of scissors to kill a pet bird) are routinely ignored. The Doctor, who is kind to his patients, rains verbal abuse upon his mistress and molests his teenage daughter. And the Baron, despite his largess in funding village-wide celebrations, is shown to be cold-hearted and unscrupulous.

The White Ribbon is constructed much like a mystery novel. Events take place in a small, closed community with a limited number of suspects. Clues abound pointing to a variety of suspects. And there's even a sort of amateur sleuth (the teacher) who engages in an investigation. Haneke, however, fails to provide a clean resolution. He offers possibilities, including one postulated by the teacher, but leaves it to the viewer to connect the dots. Much of what transpires is not clear-cut and, although certain characters more obviously engage in nefarious deeds than others, even the best constructed exploration of events will require a degree of informed speculation. If P.D. James left readers of her detective stories hanging like this, they would be outraged. Fortunately, we've come to expect this sort of thing from Haneke, who delights in flouting conventions that he views as facile. (One of those apparently being a sense of closure.)

Haneke creates a deliberate pace, slowing narrative momentum by providing extended shots of rooms and halls where nothing is happening. One memorable example occurs when the Pastor intends to punish his children in the dining room. The camera, set up in the hall, points at the closed door to the dining room. Moments later, a child emerges, passes the camera, retrieves a switch, moves in front of the camera again, and re-enters the dining room, closing the door behind him. For several moments, nothing happens, then we hear the sound of the switch striking flesh followed by a scream. Haneke retains transitional material that Hollywood would edit out. It makes the proceedings slower and allows for more intellectual engagement, but one senses it's also a deliberate refutation of the fast-paced cutting that has become commonplace worldwide in mainstream motion pictures. Movies rarely breathe the way The White Ribbon does (although, at 145 minutes, it arguably breathes too much).

Haneke has linked the movie's theme to that of the genesis of terrorism, and it's easy to understand the connection. In its most common form, terrorism is about those with limited power and means striking out at larger, more powerful foes using unconventional methods and often hurting innocent bystanders in the process. If one assumes the teacher's interpretation is more-or-less correct (and a careful examination of the text supports this), what occurs during the course of The White Ribbon is a near-perfect example of this: corrupted innocents lashing out at their oppressors using the only means available to them.

As in all powerful films, the content unfolds onion-like, with each level being peeled back to show something fascinating beneath. The White Ribbon takes root and reveals more of itself in retrospect than during the unspooling process. Some questions one might have upon leaving the theater are answered when they are carefully considered, but others emerge. This is one of those movies that rewards the involved viewer and punishes anyone who enters the theater with the goal of passively being ferried through a by-the-numbers plot. Haneke also doesn't deal in one-dimensional stereotypes. The detestable doctor shows compassion toward his patients and is a good father to his boy. The rigid pastor shares several tender moments with his youngest child.

The most frustrating aspect of The White Ribbon has nothing to with Haneke and everything to do with the film's U.S. distributor, Sony Classics. In order to make the movie appear more like an historical record, Haneke presented it in black-and-white, which is the perfect choice. However, the white subtitles, which too often appear on a bright backdrop, are occasionally unreadable. There are ways around this problem, but all were apparently too expensive for Sony Classics to consider. As a result, bits and pieces of dialogue will be lost to viewers without a passing understanding of German. Even considering this flaw, The White Ribbon is worth the effort for those who appreciate that there can be more to a motion picture experience than sitting back and enjoying the ride.

White Ribbon, The (Austria/Germany/France/Italy, 2009)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2010-01-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In German with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1