The White Ribbon (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

There’s so much cruelty expressed by the characters in  The White Ribbon that it becomes numbing.


Strange things are happening in small village in Northern Germany. The doctor is thrown from his horse and injured, victim of a tripwire strung across the road. A woman falls through the floor of the sawmill and is killed. Someone leaves a window open and a child catches a fever and almost dies. One boy is kidnapped, hung upside down and whipped, while another is almost blinded.

These events, which took place in 1913-1914, are narrated many years later by the village schoolmaster (Ernst Jacobi as the narrator, Christian Friedl as his younger self) and although it seems that he has a theory about what’s going on, he doesn’t press it on us and director Michael Haneke provides both many suspects and none. Perhaps Haneke is teasing us about our inevitable attempts to solve the mystery as he seems to be suggesting that The White Ribbon isn’t so much about the behavior of any individual or individuals as about a culture in which such things are possible.

Because horrible as these occurrences are, they aren’t out of character with the casual cruelty which seems to be the norm in this village. The White Ribbon can easily be read as an indictment of German society in the early 20th century, in line with Wilhelm Reich’s theories as expressed in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Men abuse women, parents are violent to their children while children victimize the weak among themselves, always in ways which are intensely personal and calculated to destroy the spirit.
The title comes from the white ribbons which the village pastor (Burghart Klaussner; as in an Expressionist drama many characters are identified by their functions rather than their names) ties on his two eldest children to remind them of how far they fall short of the goal of spiritual purity. And that’s after beating all the kids, who seem to range in age from preschool through middle teens, for being late to dinner.

The pastor also orders the boy’s hands tied to the side of the bed each night since, like teenagers everywhere, he’s begun to masturbate. The hair-raising story the Pastor tells his son about the consequences of masturbation is right out of Struwelpeter, although to be fair expressed opinions commonly held by many, and not only in Germany, in 1913.
There’s so much cruelty expressed by the characters in The White Ribbon that it becomes numbing, an effect heightened by the film’s length (144 minutes). It also raises questions about the reliability of the narrator, who could not possibly have known about all the events he is describing in retrospect, but this didn’t bother me as I was watching the film and I doubt that it will bother you either.

The White Ribbon has been scooping up honors since Cannes, where it won both the Palme d’Or and the FIPRESCI prize (awarded by the International Federation of Film Critics) but it left me a little cold. It’s a good film and certainly worth seeing, but also manipulative and overly clever with a half-baked story line masked by beautiful presentation. The most impressive feature of The White Ribbon is the stark black-and-white cinematography by Christian Berger and the detailed period recreation by Christoph Kanter (production design), Anja Muller (Art Direction), Heike Wolf (Set Decoration) and Moidele Bickel (Costume Design).

The cast produces an excellent ensemble performance blending the efforts of experienced film actors such as Klaussner, Ulrich Tukur as the Baron, Ursini Lardi as his wife and Steffi Kühnert as the Pastor’s Wife with that of relative unknowns including Friedl (in his first film role) and Leonie Benesch as his fiancé. Many of the children are newcomers to the screen but Haneke draws dramatic and eminently believable performances from them. The end result is a powerful film which provides much food for thought while also proving a bit disappointing, particularly if you’re already familiar with Haneke’s predilection for taunting his audience. | Sarah Boslaugh


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