By Jason A. Hill
The White Ribbon, Germany / Austria / France / Italy, 2009
Written and Directed by Michael Haneke
Often in film, story becomes the magical thread that keeps us involved; story usually consists of questions and answers that create conflict. In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, the questions we receive indeed create conflict, but the film also puts into view how far we will go to find the answers. Many have tagged this film as being a glimpse into the ideological beginnings of German fascism, or Nazism. I would agree with that notion, but what makes the film so interesting and gives it its true power is its transcendence across national, cultural, and even temporal divisions to examine that all-too-human need to understand its own basic horrors and needs for safety.
The film is set in rural Germany just before World War I. The story takes place in a village where life is as simple and common as an early 20th century village gets. The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) owns the land and provides employment for over half the people living in the area. The town is small enough that there is a single Pastor (Burghart Klaussner), Doctor (Rainer Bock), and School Teacher (Christian Friedel) to accommodate everyone. Everyone plays their assigned roles in clockwork-like rhythm and the slightest variance echoes like a bomb. From here it wasn’t clear to me if the patriarchal nature of this village was a detail of this time and place or if the authoritarian setting was acutely unique to this village, but this is just another layer in the film’s rich mise-en-scene.
The story is narrated by the School Teacher as an Old Man (Ernst Jacobi), played in a much younger version by Friedel. The old man narrates with objectivity and precision, giving no opinions or conclusions, just facts. Several incidents interrupt the fragile balance that has been kept for what seems like generations. The Doctor’s horse trips over a wire that has been maliciously laid out near his home. Later, a farmer’s wife is killed at the town mill and the farmer’s grieving gives way to angst that heightens divisions between the privileged elite and the village people. More such incidents occur, and the School Teacher finds more and more clues as to who may be behind these deeds, but where it leads makes him even more doubtful. Suspicion is everywhere and the village tries to come together, but the more they try to remain stoic on the surface, the more things unravel under their feet.
The film is full of domestic drama that is shot and performed with exacting precision. The acting performances are superb and the pacing is slow and patient, with camerawork reminiscent of great older works in cinema. The film of which this reminds me the most is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), in which the answers are not the subject but rather the different points of view, all being true in their own ways. Where Ribbon differs is in its characters’ reactions and efforts to control one another for their own safety and well-being. It’s presumed that the tragic aftermath of a nation gone to extremes to produce this more orderly society is a futility that leads to insanity and its own ultimate destruction.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.
Follow the discussion here.