The White Ribbon

February, 2010, Drama

Directed by:Michael Haneke

Starring:Ulrich Tukur




German writer/director Michael Haneke has turned out another spellbinding (and deeply unsettling) gem; this claustrophobic examination of a small German village in the year preceding the outbreak of WW I takes its place beside a trio of Haneke’s recent prize-winning films (The Piano Player, Time of the Wolf & Cache) as examples of stunningly realized themes achieved via the meticulously observed actions of his movies’ characters. With an astounding cinematic eye and the haunting expressions of Ribbon’s consistently superb young actors, the director provides an opaque examination of violence and the means employed to punish it which provides a troubling commentary on America’s current lust for revenge against the Muslim terrorists that have become our national obsession since 9/11. Don’t see this one unless you’re prepared to reflect and challenge conventional notions of what constitutes legitimate retribution.


Cinematographer Christian Berger (who also served the same role in two of the Haneke films mentioned above) provides an unsettlingly intimate point of view throughout Ribbon’s two + hour running time; his efforts have earned him an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Shooting entirely in carefully lit hues of black and white, Berger provides viewers with a haunting point of view as the plot examines the escalating violence which occurs around and in the lives of a group of school children whose innocence and guilt the script stubbornly refuses to clarify.


Ribbon’s storyline begins with the deliberate injuring of a horse and its rider, then moves on to a humiliating and brutal attack on the only son of a rich baron before escalating to the mutilation (and possible murder) of a sweet young boy who suffers from Down’s Syndrome. Each of these incidents occurs away from the camera’s lens, but the seemingly disinterested reactions of the village children to these events and their possible role in producing them yields a terrifying series of responses from parents and the village authorities. Guilt is presumed and forced confessions achieved, but the wide range of brutal and often needlessly humiliating punishments meted out often makes the adults seem better objects for the audience’s revulsion. I cannot remember a film which has the power to mesmerize and disgust in quite the same way this one does - - destroying the innocence of little children, all while attempting to teach them the lessons of “civilized” behavior.


The large cast includes only one or two actors who have appeared in movies known to American audiences, but this somehow adds to Ribbon’s impact; youngsters who seem too young to be displaying the level of dramatic talent found here only adds to the impression of their character’s veracity and when they’re forced to pay for their refusal to admit to things they may (or may not) have had anything to do with in the most appallingly cruel ways, the results are truly nightmarish…


Is the director providing a depiction of the life lessons which led so many German men to so willingly participate in the unspeakable horrors Hitler demanded of them 20 years later in the rise of the Third Reich? Does Haneke intend this film to represent an allegorical reflection on the consistent abuse of smaller European nations by their larger and more militaristic neighbors in the decades before the continent erupted into the mindless, wholesale slaughter of the First World War? Or is he simply weaving a story of evil’s inexplicable corruption of the human spirit?  Those who have been mesmerized (and often frustrated) by the director’s previous films will find in this one no easy answers, but much to ponder.


The Verdict? Already honored by a handful of impressive awards, this one is sure to be a contender for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It’s hard to imagine another film coming close to deserving it more. 

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