Written by David Hudson
The latest offering from Austrian director Michael Haneke has already scooped the coveted Palme Dâor at Cannes, and is almost certain to get a nod in the Foreign Language category at next yearâs Academy Awards.
The film is set in a rural German village in the 15 months preceding the outbreak of the start of the First World War. At first, all would appear idyllic. The villagers toil the fields, employed by the local baron, preparing for the upcoming harvest. Their children attend the local schoolroom, presided over by a schoolteacher Lehrer (Christian Friedel) â the character who narrates the movie as an old man. As an advert for the âgood old daysâ, and shot in nostalgic black and white, itâs a seductive and romantic portrait.
However, this being a Michael Haneke film, the unspoilt, blissful image is soon chipped away as the villagers are troubled by a series of mysterious, seemingly vengeful acts. The doctor falls from his horse when it trips on a hidden wire strung up between trees. A barn is set on fire. A field of cabbages is destroyed. The baronâs son is kidnapped and assaulted. Who are committing these crimes, and what has prompted their actions?
Slowly, the schoolteacher begins to unravel the mystery, and we realise that instead of a rural, peaceful idyll, the village is seething with â as perfectly summed up by the baroness â âmalice, envy, apathy and brutalityâ. The villagers lead hard lives, torn between their service to the baron and their obedience to the local pastor â a man who sparingly canes his children and binds his eldest son to his bed to prevent him from masturbating.
Haneke and his wonderful cast convincingly create a richly evocative portrait, and devastatingly illustrate the harsh realities of life for rural communities in the first half of the 20th century. The pastor tries in vain to instill the concept of âpurityâ in his children, tying white ribbons to their arms to always remind them of their innocence. The children, as we begin to realise, are anything but innocent. Suppression gives way â covertly and overtly â to violence and revolt.
The White Ribbon masterfully draws you in, despite unfolding at a leisurely pace. Like watching leaves floating on a river, it hypnotizes you â lulling you in to a false sense of security, before hitting you with another unnerving scene or act of brutishness. Itâs an astounding and mesmerising piece of work that fully deserves the accolades being heaped upon it.
Last edited: 9th March 2010
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