on 3 July 2011
The White Ribbon won't appeal to those wanting a slick, colourful, fast-moving, gimmicky, loud sort of film with a few easy-to-digest plotlines, tidily resolved by the end.
If I had to sum it up in one line I'd say it is majestically Proustian in its treatment of the life of a pre-1stWW rural German community - but without the laughs.
An utterly memorable film that, some months after seeing it, still remains with me. The casting is superb - it's almost impossible to believe that these are not real characters, experiencing real - and terrible - events. The choice of treatment (almost no music except when integral to the story, black & white, long, lingeringly long, scenes full of rich detail making it utterly worthwhile to concentrate and stay with it - and, most impressive of all, no lurid scenes spelling out in prurient detail the cruelties perpetrated - the restraint was so powerfully used it was almost unbearable to think of what was happening...
But bearable it was, surprisingly, and I sat through this long film mesmerised, feeling totally swept up by it; the people and the room in which I sat seemed to disappear and I felt I WAS THERE, a ghostly observer, hardly daring to breathe.
The story took me on a journey I didn't realise I was going to make, and wouldn't have chosen to make but circumstances were such I had no choice but to be there - and I have absolutely no regrets and no doubt that I've seen one of the all-time great films. Setting aside the horrors of the various anguished situations that make up the story, it clears up any soppily Disneyesque ideas one might have had that rural life was golden in those times before the first WW. On many levels, this film had great integrity.
on 30 November 2009
This is a film that will divide opinion between those who are firm advocates and those who wonder what all the fuss is about.
It is stunningly shot in black and white and well acted particularly by the children. It's a convincing film whose camera shots convey menace and evil in a way that is unsettling.
The story of a small German village and the appalling sequence of events that touch all the lives there is told through the schoolmaster. What do the atrocities mean? Who is the perpetrator? What part do the children play?
Given the adults are almost all unsavoury (one encounters abuse of all types) it is not surprising that the children grow up in a peculiar fashion. There will be parallels drawn between village life and the Nazis (indeed it's not hard to see one of the girls as a future concentration camp guard), but the film works well as a portrayal of an insular community turning in on itself.
Those who like their films neatly wrapped up with solutions will be disappointed. It provides no such comfort. But the conclusion of the film left me thoughtful and I returned to it days later to puzzle out what I thought about it. I'm still not entirely sure, but is it worth seeing? Yes indeed.
I studied German at university, so I found this film to be familiar - the seriousness of the drama, the social hierarchy and the upright milieu of the baronial class, set against peasants and professionals. I'm used to Haneke creating contemporary drama, so this period piece was a bit of a surprise, it unfolds quite slowly, some of it doesn't make sense, there are lots of characters to follow.
Twice while I was watching this film, I had somewhere else to go, but I couldn't move. I found the tale to be spellbinding. You've got to have a taste for angst, horror and depravity, which tend to be Haneke's signature themes, but as in Cache or Code Unknown, Haneke evokes something painful about the human condition, the misunderstandings, the brutality and the lack of knowledge of other people's motives and actions.
I can see why some people would hate it. The film shows you of the cruelty of parents, the shame of childhood sexuality, adult sexual abuse of children and the reality of profound unhappiness, and Haneke does it in very raw ways. It's very like a Thomas Hardy story, which remains unsatisfyingly unresolved. Like Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte, this film leaves you with a depression that lingers for days. But good depression, which leads to a more profound understanding of life.
on 16 December 2009
Before you start to read this, please note that it will give away some of the plot. I thoroughly recommend the film, and suggest you watch it without any preconceived ideas.
This film is extraordinary with myriad levels of interest. As an insight into rural lifestyles of the era it is fascinating (it would seem German agricultural production was much more labour-intensive and much less mechanised than in Britain at the same time, although probably it's wrong to make generalisations from the depiction of events on just one estate). It clearly shows how society was stratified into aristocracy (the Baron and Baroness), the educated elite (the doctor, the pastor & the teacher) the somewhat educated higher-level servants (the steward and the nanny) with uneducated agricultural labourers at the bottom of the pack.
Visually, the film is stunning; there is tremendous attention to detail in terms of costumes and architecture (just occasionally an over-modern window frame creeps in). Time and time again, there are beautifully composed shots of the village, the fields and the estate. The interiors of the houses are particularly noteworthy. When the peasant farmer goes into his bedroom to see his just-dead wife, the bareness and unevenness of the walls is indescribably depressing. The interiors of the other homes have been recreated entirely in keeping with the station of the owner.
The two above points, however, are not the main reason for watching the film (they are sort of extra "treats", if you like). A series of sinister events leads to closer scrutiny of the characters mentioned above. The doctor is found to be exploiting the midwife in the most brutal and callous fashion, and in addition seems to be abusing his daughter (whose age - 14 - he needs reminding of); the pastor is exceptionally strict on his several children, especially in respect of sexual matters (I do not doubt he loves them, and genuinely believes he is acting in their best interests); the Baron, while perhaps not directly responsible for the death of a disabled female worker, is most certainly exploiting the very poor agricultural labourers. The women in this film are all in the shadow of their husbands and their lives fall completely into conventional roles. At one stage, the midwife tries to stand up to the doctor & the Baroness tries to stand up to the Baron (but we don't know what the outcome of their rebellions was).
Children are central to this film, and it takes some effort to untangle them and work out which belong to which parents (principally the doctor, the steward & the pastor). This creates almost a pack identity, perhaps. Some of the events are harrowing; the pastor's confrontion with Martin; when Martin asks his brothers to untie him; when Anni tells Rudi that her father has pierced her ears; when Karli is being treated by the doctor. Other scenes are touching; I found all the scenes with Eva the nanny to be just beautiful. The first time the teacher saw her, searching for a premise on which to get her to stop and talk to him, he asks if she would take a fish to his father. This is despite the facts that neither of them has anything in which to wrap the fish, and Eva does not know the teacher's father. The exchanges between the two were always beautifully scripted and never awkward. No-one in the cinema noticed the comedy turn provided by Eva's father when the teacher went to visit Eva in her own home - I think perhaps it took them off guard, given the generally dark tenor of the film.
My only "gripe" with the film would perhaps be that the voice of the narrator was very different to that of the teacher as a young man. I was nearly annoyed by the one or two longish pauses - obviously the director had his reasons for these, but I can see that some people will not like them.
There has been speculation that the film prefigures the development of national socialism in Germany. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; the film takes place around 1913/14, Hitler was elected in 1933; of these two things we are sure. Whether the three key poisonous ingredients in this film (exploitation of the poor by the rich & powerful; repression, of children in particular; male dominance of women) led directly to national socialism is not, for me, certain.
"The White Ribbon" is an imperious film and I found it to be entirely captivating throughout.It is set in a rural community,Eichwald, in 1913-14 in northern Germany and is filmed entirely in monochrome. Eichwald is very hierarchical and patriarchal with the Baron, the Doctor , the Pastor and the Teacher being the predominant local figures ,with the rest of the servants ,workers and women being very much in their thrall. The villagers may appear to be peaceful,God fearing and selfless, but a series of apparent accidents and incidents of arson and assault arising from a general vindictive malice shatter the lives of the villagers and no-one knows who or what is behind them. The film portrays everyday life in this community superbly and there are many excellent scenes especially when the local children are abused and humiliated by their elders. Could the children not be as docile and well behaved as their parents might think and could they be behind the low level terrorism that is afflicting the village ? Or is there some kind of spirit or "zeitgeist" moving about the village causing people to become nasty and malicious ? There is great characterisation in "The White Ribbon" and the film is well acted throughout,particularly by the children. This film is perhaps something of an allegory to the rise of Nazism in Germany; the rigidly hierarchical,outwardly respectable ,cold and repressive society of Eichwald breeding a resentful and violent social stratum being symbolic of the rise of the Nazis only a few decades later...
on 11 March 2015
In his monumental history of Germany and the Great War (Germany's Aims in the First World War), German historian Fritz Fischer shows clearly what Germany's historical problem was. A young nation, only recently politically united in the late 19th century, it was secure in knowing that its pre-eminent cultural status in Europe was understood and accepted. But it was politically marginal, a weak nation hardly noticed in the shadows of the Great Powers surrounding it. To the east Russia stretched all the way to the Pacific. To the west the empires of Britain and France were vast. Other empires in the west had flourished as well: those of Holland, Spain and Portugal. Even Italy and Belgium had had more influence abroad than Germany.
Germany's ambitions were thwarted and blocked both by history and geography. The country was hemmed in. There was nowhere to expand. How could it take what it considered its rightful place on the world stage? War became the answer, first as policy, then as actuality. It had worked in 1870-71 during the Franco-Prussian War. Germany pried Alsace and Lorraine away from France in the aftermath of the Prussian victory. But two French provinces were nothing compared to the high seas and to potential continental possessions abroad. So the Kaiser began to build a navy that could rival that of Britain's while the architects of war in the German army were hard at work. The Schlieffen Plan to encircle Paris and bring France to its knees had been formulated by 1905, nine years before the outbreak of war. Germany was preparing for its liberation from the status of second-rank nation and war would be the way to obtain that liberation.
This is the cultural backdrop — social, psychological, political — to The White Ribbon. The film does not deal overtly with politics. It doesn't have to, as the national seeds of it are embedded in the local culture of the village.
It is not a happy village. No one smiles, laughs or plays in it, not even the children. Or they try to play, but this is not encouraged by the adults. Tradition, authority and rigid rules maintain discipline, ensuring order and preserving the hierarchy of power. Men of course are in charge, not women. Women never go to war. It's always the men who kill one another.
On the surface: tidiness, order, routine, obedience, everything and everyone in its place, bringing stability. But appearances don't always match reality. Mysterious events begin to overtake the village: accidents, disappearances, deaths. Malign, unidentifiable forces are at work, afflicting the village. But we who live in the present, not then in 1913, know what they are and portend. The storm is coming and we can almost hear the artillery shells exploding on the Western Front.
The white ribbon, tied round the upper arm of a child, marks out its wearer as sinful. Some violation has occurred and violations cannot be tolerated. They are forbidden, a concept the German mind absolutely loves. The white ribbon is like Hawthorne's scarlet letter or the yellow Star of David that Hitler so sentimentally adored. The malefactor, the outcast will be marked and noticed. There is no escape.
The village, a small replica of Germany, is facing moral breakdown. Facing but not facing, as it were. Denial, justification, lies, hypocrisy. Though the war has not yet happened, we discern already the contours of its outcome. Devoid of humanity and humane values, the village is already defeated. The adults have failed their children — children who will grow up to fight another war, the second an even greater obscenity than the first.
The film is a parable about the roots of evil (so said the film's director, Michael Haneke), so I have used that phrase as the subject heading of this review.
Haneke must be applauded for his artistry and humanity. His film, a black-and-white masterpiece, will one day be hailed as a classic. If it hasn't yet, it's only because most great things take time.
The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes during the year of its release (2009), so the judges there understood what they were seeing. Anyone interested in fascism, the Great War, or both should feel thankful that this brilliant film has been made. It is dark and disturbing, but vital.
on 16 December 2014
This unforgettably disturbing and mysterious film leads its viewers alongside an abyss of anxiety.
It has chilling brilliance and icy exactitude, filmed in black and white with the lustre of liquid nitrogen achieves a new refinement of mastery and audacity. Haneke has created a film whose superb technical finish and closure resists clear interpretation. Its exploring the German 'soul' but surely the point is that it could be anywhere? The movie is narrated in voiceover by the local teacher (Christian Friedel), now an old man, who explicitly announces that these painful events "could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country". Could they? And what is the narrator's motive in remembering or misremembering these events? Could it be that, having presumably lived through both world wars, and very possibly achieved an important social standing in Germany, his own hindsight is questionable? At the heart of everything is the pastor – an outstanding performance from Burghart Klaussner. He is a severe disciplinarian who rules his household with a rod of iron and insists on his family tradition of the "white ribbon" for wrongdoers, which could be the ancestor of the Jewish yellow star, or the Nazi armband. Or both. Or neither. Haneke establishes a web of motive, and moreover suggests the ways in which the victims of some punishment could be displacing revenge on to people easier to attack than their actual tormentors. A group of local children, who appear to go around together in unwholesome intimacy like the blond devils in The Village of the Damned, could be the culprits. Yet there are others with grievances. The midwife and mother of the child with Down's syndrome, played by Susanne Lothar, is having an unhappy affair with the doctor, who treats her cruelly, and she further has evidence that he is abusing his 14-year-old daughter Anna. The scene in which Anna's tiny brother, wandering the house wakefully in the middle of the night, stumbles upon his father and sister together, is a masterpiece of ambiguous horror.
This is a place in which secrets can be kept for ever, revealing themselves only indirectly, in sociopathic symptoms. When war arrives in 1914, it is almost a relief: a sweeping away of all these festering resentments. Haneke is however also suggesting that Germany's 20th-century wars are merely a continuation of this sickness on a bigger scale, though the link can never be clearly, definitively made. His villagers are convulsed by an enemy within, and although the Baron employs a number of Polish estate workers, there is no quasi-Jewish outsider upon whom the community focuses its fear. Within this puzzle, Haneke constructs scenes and sequences that are instant classics. The schoolmaster is conducting a delicate courtship of a local young woman, and this plot-strand is gentle, touching and humorous. Anna's little brother has the existence of death explained to him, and the result is funny and shocking at once, and the same goes for the sub-plot that follows from the pastor's little son asking if he can keep a caged bird, like the one his father has, and the consequence is both unsettling and poignant.
In the end, there is no solution to the mystery; it could be that history and human agency are unknowable, untreatable, or it could be that the Nazi generation grew up with unexpired resentment and the frustration of not getting a solution – and the director wishes us to hear the malign echoes of that word. Up there with the best.
on 3 January 2010
I'll keep this short and to the point.
Possibly the greatest living auteur, Michael Haneke keeps getting better.
Not fast paced, not obvious, no one to root for, but all these things make it a stronger work, keeping us as outsiders unable to have a say in the horrors around the corner.
The anticipation for a solution to the strange events is palpable and that there is not one make the film truly unforgettable.
A moody analysis of evil and the sins of the father.
This was my first experience of both the director Michael Haneke's work, and watching blu-ray in black and white. Quite an experience, and one that is very hard to describe as it is a film that fits no one genre with any ease. The blu-ray in black and white is a revelation, the clarity of the photography a joy to behold. Some of the shots of the winter German landscape would grace most photographic art galleries. The choice of black and white is in keeping with what is a bleak and at times disturbing story. If like me you are one of those who like to see the good guys wearing the white hats and the bad guys wearing the black hats, then this is perhaps not the film for you. If you like to see the good guys win and the bad guys punished for their misdemeanours, then again this may not be to your tastes. If you like a nice musical score, forget it, as this film is totally devoid of one, although this again is appropriate. But although in all honesty the film did leave me a little cold and disturbed, I could not deny that it is compelling and powerful. It might even be called a classic, which is clearly what the director has set out to make.
The film is set in a small protestant community in Northern Germany just before the outbreak of World War One. The period detail it should be said is stunningly authentic. The community is presided over by the local Baron in a feudal style from his manor. Virtually all the local population are dependent on the estate for their livelihoods, much in the same way that Britain operated before the war. But strange and sinister events begin to happen in the village. The local doctor is injured in a fall from his horse, caused by a deliberately laid trip wire. The baron's small son is found beaten by canes. A downs syndrome child is tortured and nearly blinded. A cabbage patch is mown down with a vengeful scythe. In some cases the perpetrator is obvious, but in others this is not the case. The community is awash with suspicion and rumour. Children gather eerily together in creepy fashion. I was reminded of William Golding's disturbing novel "Lord of the Flies". The director makes a mockery of the old adage about working with children and animals. The children all give powerful performances. We look inside the private lives of the villagers, especially the pastor played brilliantly by Burghart Klaussner, who gives perhaps the outstanding performance. He dominates his family with a malevolent religious fervour, and makes his children wear the white ribbon as a sign of pure intentions after they have sinned. Some scenes are particularly disturbing although nothing is actually shown. Some people with higher levels of sensitivity may have difficulties with the implied child abuse scene. The story is narrated by the village teacher played by Christian Friedel, who conducts a rather quaint old fashioned romance with a young girl of the village. There is no traditional ending to this story!
The film is one that you can certainly read many things into, given the dramatic events in German history to follow. Personally, the most powerful image for me was that of the effects of a harsh environment and the cruelty of parents on the children, and the way this impacted on the community. It seems to echo the problems that we have with anti social behaviour across our country today. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the doors of the parents. There is a reference in the film to the bible verse 20.5 from Exodus in relation to idols "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me". This is a verse subject to much misinterpretation, but certainly parents have much to answer for! The film deservedly won the Palme d'or at Cannes. It is a film that I found difficult to like, but at the same time could not deny its brilliance. An immensely powerful and thought provoking film!
on 13 March 2010
"The White Ribbon" is a stunningly beautiful black-and-white masterpiece that was unsurprisingly nominated for Best Camera at this year's Oscars. On Blu-Ray the sharpness and detailing of image is truly spectacular. It is not quite at the reference level of "Sin City" for depth and plasticity, but that is perhaps not quite a fair competition given that this is pure old-school film without manipulation. Throughout the film the viewer is treated to wonderfully composed shots, a complete course in cinematography, and all those images rendered always in uncompromising quality.
Given the nature of the film there is not much for HD sound to offer in the way of surround or LFE exhibitions, but those sounds offered are immaculately crisp and lifelike. Nevertheless, this is a BD where the argument for paying a premium revolves chiefly around the visual and not the audio.
The film itself was nominated as best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and probably lost for reasons other than cinematic ones. It is a very subtle film, perhaps too subtle for Hollywood, portraying a village community just before the outbreak of World War I. The acting is uniformly superb, often harrowing and hypnotic at the same time. It is not quite true to call the actors "unknowns" as a previous reviewer did, given that at the very least the Pastor played a central figure in the very successful "Die Fetten Jahre sind Vorbei" (known as "The Edukators" in England). The dialogue is superbly written and adds to the strong characterisation that the actors offer immensely.
What remains after the film is a shocking meditation on the origins of fascism and the Nazi era, but not one that offers or allows simplistic, trite conclusions. The film is quite unique and utterly unforgettable.