(Sony Classics) Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Ursina Lardi, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Susanne Lothar, Rainier Bock, Branko Samarovski, Ernst Jacobi (voice), Eddie Grahl, Fion Mutert. Directed by Michael Haneke
What is evil? Is evil something demonic, deep in the bowels of the Earth, dead set on world domination? Or is it something less flamboyant, something to be found in small, petty cruelties that escalate over time?
Our film is narrated by a schoolteacher (Jacobi) who was present for these events which took place many years earlier. He is an old man now and he intends to be as objective as he can be; he only narrates what he knows to be true and what he has heard from reliable sources.
The world was a simpler place then. The schoolteacher (Friedel) teaches, the pastor (Klaussner) tends to his flock, the midwife (Lothar) delivers babies and over all, the Baron (Tukur) presides. He provides employment for half the village and the other half depends on his largesse to survive. It is a patriarchal, rigid society, not unlike many others throughout the world the year before the Great War but the villagers exist comforted that they know their place in the order of things.
The students at the school are led by the pastor’s children, Klara (Dragus) and Martin (Proxauf) who are outwardly courteous and well-mannered. Those manners have come at a great cost, as they suffer terrifying disciplines at the hands of their father.
It all begins with an accident. The village doctor (Bock), out for a horseback ride, is injured when his horse trips. It could have happened to anyone…but in fact the “accident” was caused by a trip wire strategically placed. The doctor is taken to the hospital to recuperate and his children are cared for by the midwife, who has children with mental retardation of her own, including a sweet-natured son named Karli (Grahl).
That accident is soon overshadowed by another when the wife of a tenant farmer (Samarovski) falls through rotting floors in the sawmill duty she had been assigned and plunges to her death. Her son blames the Baron for this and is enraged that his father won’t seek justice against him. He takes matters into his own hands and during a harvest festival, destroys the Baron’s prized cabbage crop, horrifying the Baroness (Lardi). The schoolteacher, in the meanwhile, has taken a liking to the Baroness’ nanny Eva (Benesch).
After the harvest festival, things go from bad to worse. The Baron’s young son Sigi (Mutert) is kidnapped and tortured. He is unable or unwilling to say who did those horrifying things to him. The Baroness takes the children to Italy, giving Eva the sack in light of the events even though Sigi was not her charge. Tearful, she shows up at the school, having nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep. The schoolteacher stays up the night with her, playing songs on the harmonium for her before taking her back to her family in another village close to the one he himself was born in.
Events begin to escalate. A barn burns. The police begin to put pressure on the villagers to find out who’s responsible for these events, and still no culprit is found. When Karli is found horribly mutilated and blinded, the village turns into a powder keg waiting to blow, and the clouds of war loom ominously on the horizon.
Haneke is one of the most brilliant European directors you’ve never heard of. Although his last film was the forgettable Hollywood remake of his own Funny Games, his previous film to that, Cache (Hidden) was a tour de force. As in that film, the identity of the evildoer is less important than the evil that is done. This is a recurring theme in Haneke’s films.
The depiction of rural German village life is fascinating and feels authentic. At the beginning of the movie, everything is ordered and everyone has their role. There is a certainty in knowing who you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do. As the events begin to unfold, that order begins to crumble and things fall apart; that certainty becomes as much a victim of the events as any who are directly injured by them.
That the movie was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for this years Oscars is not surprising to me, nor that it is considered by many as of this writing to be the front-runner to win it. A great deal of thought went into the making of this movie, from the actors involved to the cinematography to how the script is translated onscreen. You can sense the care in every frame and everything seems to be note-perfect. The use of black and white not only intensifies the mood of vague dread and unsettling fear, but also helps set the time and place much better than color would. The broad vistas of the German heartland are also beautifully shot; because the film was shot digitally they were able to edit out all traces of modern life and create a milieu that is completely authentic.
The acting is also worth noting. For a film in which children play a critical role, the filmmakers needed to cast some very talented juvenile actors and so they did. There is naturalness to their performances, and not a hint of artifice. You don’t get a sense that they’re acting so much as becoming their characters. They act exactly as you would expect children of that era to act.
The adult actors do very well also and Friedel possesses the charm of a German Hugh Grant, modest and self-deprecating but with a hint of bumbling, yet still charming nonetheless. He is, in many ways, the least compelling of all the characters in the movie but it is Friedel’s performance that I remember the most vividly. That should tell you something.
You will notice that few of the characters have names. Most of them are identified by their role within the village, including the schoolteacher but also the pastor, the farmer and the steward. I believe that’s meant to convey that these characters are interchangeable for those in any village. I found it telling that only the children have names in this movie; read into that what you will.
The pacing of the movie is glacial and plodding at times; at two and a half hours the run time may be a bit long for some, particularly those who aren’t fond of subtitles or black and white films. Those who are patient will be rewarded with some stunning imagery and one of the most thought-provoking movies you will see this year. Violence begets violence, brutality begets brutality and evil begets more evil. As you watch this small village unravel keep in mind the old adage that your sins will find you out, and never in the way you expect them to. The White Ribbon isn’t just about the loss of innocence; it’s about its inevitable end.
REASONS TO GO: A compelling examination of brutality and evil. An authentic look at village life in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century. Naturalistic performances highlight a generally well-acted movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the long side and plods at times. The tone may be overly dark for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing imagery of violence and sexuality, definitely not suitable for youngsters.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was initially filmed in color, and then changed to black and white in post-production.
HOME OR THEATER: The intimate atmosphere and black and white imagery work perfectly well on the small screen.
FINAL RATING: 9/10