- Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.
Could there ever be an explanation for the rise of Nazi Germany? One Austrian film maker puffs out his chest and spoon-feeds us his answer in 144 minutes of a beautiful (though outrageously masochistic) film, The White Ribbon.
Our story begins in an unknown village in northern Germany, 1913. At first, it seems to be a quiet, sleepy place held together by it’s strict authorities. We are introduced to many of the inhabitants, including the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his family, the doctor (Rainer Bock) and his children, and the pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and his large household. The whole film is narrated by a school teacher (Christian Friedel), who tells this tale retrospectively, and proclaims that his memories of what happened in this village will clarify subsequent events in German history.
Things progress as a sort of philosophical “whodunit.” The first scene has the local physician riding his horse home through a familiar path, when a concealed wire causes him to have a horrific accident. This is the first of many ominous goings-on that have us believing all is not well in these German “parts unknown.” Later, two children go missing and are found severely beaten; a worker dies on the job; the baron’s crops are destroyed; and a large fire breaks out. People hang themselves and point fingers, causing quite a paranoid atmosphere. All the while, the school teacher seems to be one of the few who haven’t been affected yet, so we watch as he pursues the baroness’ young nanny. You cringe every time they have an endearing moment as you fear the worst for their future, given the environment their relationship is sparked in.
It’s glaringly obvious that the children of the German village are involved. Though these atrocities are occurring with more and more frequency, the underlying corruptness of all authority figures becomes more of the focus. The doctor is abusive to the midwife he sleeps with, and to his daughter. The pastor is a harsh punisher of his children, who ties white ribbons to them to shame them and remind them to be pure and innocent. The baron is shown as uncaring of his subjects and self-serving. These are only a few of the less disturbing hypocrisies and vices of the authority figures. Some are so horrible that they make you feel that writer/director Michael Haneke is making his point just a little too bluntly.
The best part of this film has to do with it’s technical aspects. The acting is phenomenal; the subtle twitch of the mouth or a down cast glance carries over more in this film than what any line of script can achieve. The White Ribbon was originally filmed in color, but was later drained of color to be shown as black and white. Every aspect of this early 1900’s recreation is extremely realistic. The wardrobe and scenery drop you right into the ambiance. But the most amazing part is that this film was shot with such a talented hand, that while beautiful, it conveys a stifling and enclosed feeling that is directly in tune with the overall tone of the movie. Nevermind the disturbing story, it’s the camera work that carries over the feeling of suspicion and paranoia.
Just as in Haneke’s film “Caché,” the audience is given no resolution to all the depravity. Absolutely no ends are tied up, except that the narrator states at the end of the film that WWI has begun. Some argue that this causes speculation and a forced look at our own histories. But Haneke went so far in this film to force his symbolism that he has honestly left very little room for speculation and only the ability to agree or disagree with his message. Whether his views of early 20th century science (the doctor), government (the baron), and religion (the pastor) are correct or not, it makes for a fairly abrasive movie-going experience.
The White Ribbon may seem to have a riveting message spouting that “it could have been us” that yielded to Hitler’s rise — that we shouldn’t feel superior to early 20th century Germans because of all the historic similarities in authority and atrocities. But really, it starts to feel more like an enormous excuse…a moral passing of the buck for the children who grew up supporting the Nazi party and all it included. His use of extremely disturbing content has been praised by some as eye-opening, and this is far from the truth. He is simply a fantastic web-spinner with the ability to deceive gullible masochists into believing his manipulation of the content makes it art.
Haneke uses his “message” to lead the audience around by the ear, showing off his Superior Intelligence by forcing you through not so much a riveting film, but a 2 hour and 24 minute ‘Lesson for All You Ignorant People.’ While it’s a technical masterpiece, the substance falls short of the praise it has been given by relentlessly showering the viewers in blatant symbolism, sickening situations, and shallow philosophical theories about the causes of all society’s screw-ups.
I give The White Ribbon 3 “angry kids” out of 5.