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The White Ribbon

Life and death in a German town

Feb. 17, 2010
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The White Ribbon begins with the voice of an aged narrator recalling the rural village where he worked as schoolmaster on the eve of World War I. He confesses that the story he’s about to tell might not be entirely true. Some of the details are hearsay. However, he will do his best to offer the essential truth behind the grim tale of misfortune that befell the town. The story, he adds enigmatically, might “clarify some things that happened in this country.”

With The White Ribbon, Austrian director Michael Haneke weaves a gradually spellbinding, ultimately mysterious tapestry of a time and place. As in earlier films such as Caché, Haneke holds back crucial information, implying that we can never fully know the reasons why anything happens. Immaculately crafted in the pale tones of memory, in black and white, The White Ribbon examines the lives of the three classes of people who inhabit the village. At the top of the feudal order are the baron and his family, and at the bottom are the peasants who work in his fields and mills. Between them are a middle class and a rippling gulf of malice and mistrust.

Other than a single bicycle owned by the baron and occasionally loaned to deserving townsfolk, little has changed in the village for more than a century. Electricity hasn’t reached the area and motorcars are unseen on the dusty roads. The baron dominates the town and bestows his bounty on the populace at the harvest festival. Farm work is done by hand. A stern Lutheran ethos, maintained by a pastor out of Ingmar Bergman, rules the imagination. When the town doctor is thrown from his horse by a tripwire strung between trees along his accustomed path, the apparently placid, unchanging order is disturbed. It will be only the first in a string of unsolved crimes, some of them horrible to contemplate.

The White Ribbon takes its title from the bands of white the pastor forces his children to wear as a reminder of the purity they should aspire to attain. His is a religion of guilt without penance. The pastor isn’t heartless, but he cares for his children within the rigid bonds of a belief that demands much while offering few consolations. Like many of the adults encountered in The White Ribbon, he is flawed and often cruel but not wholly evil. The children, sometimes the victims of their society and sometimes the victimizers, remain mysterious.

A thin mist of unresolved suspense clings to The WhiteRibbon, whose story of many tribulations is brightened only from the love that blooms between the shy schoolmaster (Christian Friedel) and the shy, teenage nanny from the baron’s estate (Leonie Benesch). They are the film’s most likable people, but, of course, it’s the schoolmaster’s story. The narrator never identifies which “things that would happen in this country” are clarified by his account (the rise of Nazism?). Like the string of crimes that plagued all classes in the village, The White Ribbon is more a lament for the human condition than a social or political critique.


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