Yes, The White Ribbon is in German. It’s also in black and white and 145 minutes long. If that’s not enough for you, it’s a mystery story without a clear solution. Yeah, none of that got me exactly all jazzed about The White Ribbon either—not to mention the fact that it was written and directed by Michael Haneke, whose only other film I’ve seen, Cache (2005), ranks pretty high on my list of movies that define tedium. Well, I do think The White Ribbon is too long, but I also think it’s one hell of a mesmerizing movie.
I can see how The White Ribbon is from the same man who made Cache, but it frankly reminds me more of Ingmar Bergman than anything—or anyone—else. The only thing that I’d say works against this is my suspicion that Bergman could have made the same impact with 20 to 30 minutes less running time. However, part of what works about The White Ribbon may depend on how completely Haneke immerses the viewer in this long-lost world of the film. I may feel The White Ribbon is too long now, but this is an area where I’m quite prepared to be wrong on further reflection and subsequent viewings.
The film is set just prior to World War I in a small German town where a kind of patriarchal feudal system is still in effect. Over half the village works for the Baron (Ulrich Tuckur), who controls just about everything there is to control. Where his authority stops, other patriarchal figures loom—particularly the rigid Lutheran pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and the mean-spirited (and worse) doctor (Rainer Bock). The children, the wives and women in general have no authority whatsoever in this world. Or do they? At bottom, the film is a study in the disintegration of this patriarchal system.
Haneke never bluntly states this theme, nor does he do more than touch on the events that would follow in the wake of this society. What may eclipse all these surprises is how completely unsentimental his approach is. Few of the characters are more than marginally sympathetic. Only two—the teacher (Christian Friedel) and the woman he is courting, Eva (Leonie Bensesch)—seem even remotely innocent. Even the children seem to have been cast with no eye toward physical appeal. All in all, they feel a bit like art-movie refugees from Children of the Corn (1984)—except we can never be sure exactly how culpable they are in the strange and disturbing events that plague the village.
The story line follows a series of what might be called unfortunate events: The doctor is injured when his horse is brought down by a trip wire, the Baron’s son (Fion Mutert) is kidnapped and tortured, the Baron’s barn is burnt down, the midwife’s (Susanne Lothar) mentally challenged son (Eddy Grahl) is tortured and possibly blinded. The question is who is doing this? No answer seems to completely fit, though the teacher’s quickly rejected conclusion seems the most likely. But it’s also clear that other things going on unnoticed in the town are every bit as horrible—sometimes more so. Disturbing and haunting, The White Ribbon should be high on the list of movies to see for those interested in film as an art form. Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.