The white ribbons of this movie’s title refer to arm bands and hair ribbons a punitive Lutheran pastor (Burkhart Klaubner) forces his two adolescent children to wear to remind them, in private and in public, that they must always take the high moral road. Little good the ribbons do–the holy man and his abused children are all monsters in the making.
In The White Ribbon, director Michael Haneke (Cache) weaves a powerful tale that digs up the insidious roots of Nazi evil that formed throughout German soil in the years before World War I. His setting is a small Protestant farming village. His characters range from hard-working farmers and their families, through the grasping middle class to the all-powerful, uncaring Baron (Ulrike Tukur) himself. The villains are men who represent German patriarchies, the still extant remnants of feudalism and the Church. The victims are the women who suffer from or enable these men. Both victim–and villain–are the children who rebel against their fathers with cruelties of their own, hideous spawn who prove truly that “the sins of the father are visited upon the children.”
Only a few characters in the story are innocent. They either become martyrs, such as the children who are tortured by the other children. Or they exist as outsiders, such as the school teacher and his sweet fiancée, who are impotent against the forces of evil in the village, but also remain untainted by it.
It’s 1913, about 15 months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June, 1914, will cast Germany and the rest of Europe into the horrors of WWI–a time when those who will grow up to become the backbone of Nazism are now children. The man who was the school teacher at that time (Christian Friedel) is telling the story from the distance of many years. As the school teacher he’s in a unique position in the village to be one of the few adults who observes all the children and can trace their behavior over time. He is fascinated that a group of children, instead of running home after school every day, gather around the minister’s daughter Klara, who seems to have a fearful hold on the others. He comes to suspect much later, that not only do the children follow Klara wherever she goes, but they start to do what she tells them.
The eerie tale begins when the local physician (Rainer Bock), whom we will come to know and hate later, is thrown off his horse and seriously injured when an unknown person ties a wire across two trees in the path he takes every day. He is rushed to the hospital, leaving his practice and his two children in the care of his long suffering midwife (Susanne Lothar), who also cares for her retarded son.
The police are baffled–who would want to injure the doctor? Then more strange things happen. The farmer’s wife falls through rotten floorboards in the Baron’s mill and is killed. His sons want the father to take immediate revenge on the Baron but he insists on taking his time. In the meantime, one of the sons maliciously beheads all the cabbages in the Baron’s garden and inspires the tyrannical man’s ire–soon the farmer and his large family are out of work and threatened with starvation.
Then the Baron’s lovely young son is tortured and left hanging upside down in the mill–but the farmer and his sons all have alibis. Who would do such a thing? The Baroness flees to Italy with the traumatized boy and her twins. She fires the nanny, who is Eva (Leonie Benesch), the school teacher’s beloved.
Eva’s banishment from the village makes it harder for the schoolteacher to woo her, but he’s smitten and the course of their courtship is a solid path that lightens up the misery in the other film’s stories. With the endearing interludes of the love story, The White Ribbon would have been relentlessly grim. As it is, the romance provides a charming distraction, allowing us to breathe before sending us back into the growing mysterious evil.
The malicious incidents continue to happen. A window is left open in the winter, which nearly kills a newborn baby. The Baron’s farm burns down. The farmer commits suicide. The doctor’s young son discovers him raping his teenage sister–is the poor girl pregnant?
Evil hasn’t spared the house of the village’s spiritual guide, in fact, it seems to have taken residence there. The pastor severely and grotesquely punishes his son for masturbating. His daughter, Klara, stabs his pet parrot after he embarrasses her in class.
In the last act of terrorism, the midwife’s retarded son, is kidnapped and tortured so terribly that he may go blind. Attached to his body is a letter calling down punishment from God. For what does God need to punish? Who feels such rage that they would mistreat an innocent child? Who is perpetrating all the other cruelties and damage? Waves of evil turn one villager against another, trapping them all in the mindset of fear, making scapegoats of the innocent–and we can’t help but notice that the village has become the microcosm of Germany itself and the images of the Holocaust while never seen in the film can’t help but be called up in our memories. And you can’t ignore comparisons that might arise from the examples of other extremist societies, large and small, that might come up from contemporary headlines.
Scene by scene the wave of evil spreads, not in the pointed, obvious cuts of modern-day horror films, but slowly, like an oily black spill, requiring that you pay attention to every moment, every glance in the film. You are elated by the mastery of the filmmaking, and sickened by the truth that oozes from it.
When the school teacher finally puts his suspicions together and realizes that it is the children, probably led by the minister’s daughter Klara, who is behind much of the village’s tragic troubles, our recognition of this fact has reached such a peak that the tension is almost unbearable. We are horrified, but the film has taken such a languid, some say long, way to reveal its clues, that we have little choice but to agree with the school teacher’s findings. The children, raised by domineering, guilt-inducing, hypocritical men, have grown to reflect openly the repulsive secrets of their fathers.
The White Ribbon was shot in color and then processed to be black-and-white, giving it much more somber mood than could have been achieved in color. It’s not the gloriously lit, majestically shadowed black and white of the 1930’s, but it serves the message of the film well.
Is The White Ribbon a “masterpiece” as many have called it, having won many awards, including three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009? (It lost the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, surprisingly, to the Argentinean entry, The Secret in Their Eyes.) Or as some Americans have complained, is it a long pretentious bore? That depends, I think, on how comfortable you are with films that make you think. If you want all the answers, you’ll be befuddled by the subtlety of The White Ribbon. If you can deal with ambiguity, which often is the real face of evil, then you’ll appreciate it.
I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but The White Ribbon is certainly is one of the best films of 2009. My barometer of a film’s greatness is how long the film stays with me–and this film this would be in the highest quotient of all of last year’s films. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. Two scenes replay in my mind constantly. One is an excruciatingly sad and beautiful scene in which the doctor’s 5-year-old son interrogates his older sister about the meaning of death–and comes to realize that his mother, who died in his birth, is not gone on a long vacation, but is dead. Another scene is so emotionally cruel that it pains me every time it comes up–the doctor viciously sends away the midwife who has been his constant helper and sex provider for many years. Her reaction is nearly silent but you can hear the cries of her breaking heart echo long past the end of the film.
Yes, The White Ribbon is long for Americans. It’s 144 minutes. I found the movie so mesmerizing that it wasn’t long enough.