The White Ribbon Review


“The White Ribbon” is the kind of film I wish filmmakers tried to do more often. I don’t care that it’s not perfect. I don’t even care (that much) that it moves at a snail’s pace. I don’t care because it’s artistic and it doesn’t pander. Director Michael Haneke tells his story the way he wants to tell it–critics and audiences be damned.

The film tells the story of what happened in a small German village just before the outbreak of World War I. It’s told as a flashback from the point-of-view of the village’s gentle, perhaps naive, teacher (Christian Friedel). The story begins when the village’s doctor (Rainer Bock) nearly dies when his horse trips on a hidden wire mysteriously strung between two trees in his yard. This sets of a string of tragic accidents and cruel crimes. A woman farmhand falls to her death. Sigi (Fion Mutert), the son of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), is abducted, only to be found days later beaten and possibly raped. A similar thing happens to the mentally challenged son of the village’s midwife (Susanne Lothar). The teacher, along with the rest of the town, is uneasy, but he tries to put the pieces together, all while striking up a romance with the Baron’s children’s shy, young nanny (Leonie Benesch).

What “The White Ribbon” does best is create a sense of ambiguity for a story in which its implications are more important than its revelations. Very little is resolved. In fact, the film’s final notes are about as open-ended as any since “No Country for Old Men.” But Haneke isn’t concerned with providing clean answers to the story’s central mysteries. In his world, everyone is suspicious; everyone is guilty of something.

The film is made better by the extraordinary, and Academy Award-nominated, cinematography. The black-and-white is gorgeous. And the actual camerawork is fascinating. Cinematographer Christian Berger lets the camera linger for maximum effect (although sometimes for a little too long). For example, in one scene in the pastor’s house when he is about to punish his children with a cane lashing, the camera only pivots from door to door as members of the household pass by. There are many takes like this throughout the film.

While the film does a lot of things right, it does move excruciatingly slow at times. It’s a long film (almost 150 minutes), and the virtual absence of a score and the long, unbroken takes, make it seem much longer. And the languid pace of the story made me lose patience with the films on multiple occasions. While I appreciate that Haneke marches to the beat of his own drummer, I’m not sure I was completely in sync with what he was trying to do. Let’s just say my preferred tempo is a few beats ahead of his.

The film is relatively unremarkable when it comes to acting. Christian Friedel and Leonie Benesch are sweet as the film’s only truly happy couple. They are so uneasy around each other, but their heart is in the right place—which is more than can be said about the rest of the film’s characters. Pretty much everyone else has to portray complicated individuals, and they are successful enough. No one is truly likeable, but many of them are pitiable. Some of them—the doctor, the baron, the pastor—are flat out despicable. If the film’s implication is that these parents’ actions shape monstrous children into Nazis, it’s not hard to see where that comes from.

“The White Ribbon” won the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. I can see it being embraced by a European audience like that, but the general public is far too impatient to appreciate what Haneke has done. Hell, I think I’m too impatient to truly appreciate what he has done. I certainly admire his craft, and I think the film is gorgeous, but it’s so slow I just wanted to scream at him to pick up the pace.

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