On the eve of World War I, strange accidents in a small Protestant village in Northern Germany involve the children and teenagers of a choir run by the schoolteacher and their families. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery as these events gradually take on the character of a punishment ritual.
Like a Twilight Zone
episode directed by Antonioni, The White Ribbon
weaves an unsettling and enigmatic spell. Michael Haneke's film is set just before World War I in a village in northern Germany, where a series of strange occurrences take place over several months. These occurrences are sinister and cruel and often involve the children of the village--not merely as victims (although child abuse seems to be a far-from-isolated event) but also as perpetrators. At least that's the way it appears. Nothing is completely spelled out in Haneke's scheme, which hints and insinuates and thoroughly gets under the viewer's skin over the course of 144 edgy minutes. We might notice the children are of an age that will make them mature participants in the horror of Germany in the 1930s and '40s, but even this is left as an unemphasized point. Since Haneke is an expert at denying explicit conclusions for his projects (see also Caché
and Funny Games
for more on the subject), we shouldn't be surprised that he withholds the answers to the questions he poses, or that the film is even more powerful because of this withholding. Adding to the effect is Christian Berger's Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography, which has a ghostly quality appropriate to the topic. In the end, all the strange happenings of the village are absorbed into the town's rhythm of life--which might be the most disturbing conclusion of all. --Robert Horton Stills from The White Ribbon (Click for larger image)