Customer Review

118 of 124 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Village of the Damned, January 25, 2010
This review is from: The White Ribbon (DVD)
Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" could be considered a mystery in that things happen for no apparent reason. The Doctor (Rainer Bock) breaks his arm after falling off his horse, which tripped over a wire strung between two trees. Not long after, someone abducts the eldest son of the Baron (Ulrich Tukur); he isn't found until the next morning, at which point it's discovered that he had been bound and beaten with a cane. A barn owned by the Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) is burned to the ground. The mentally challenged son of the Midwife (Susanne Lothar) is viciously attacked and almost blinded. Why is all of this happening? Are they acts of revenge? Are they punishments for the sin of weakness? Are they the beginnings of war, intolerance, and terrorism? Your guess is as good as mine. This movie isn't about solutions.

What is it about, then? The story takes place in the days before World War I, when authority was not questioned and life was lived according to much simpler routines. The setting is a German farming community, which has maintained stability by not upsetting the "natural order"; it was expected that the Baron would own the land, the men would have control over their women and children, and the peasants would not have the same rights as their superiors. The Pastor, for example, raises his children not to love God so much as fear Him, and he continuously instills the idea that they must feel guilty for everything that they do. So as to remind them of the path of righteousness from which they have strayed, he ties a white ribbon onto their arms - a symbol of purity.

But in spite of outward appearances, purity is not something to be found behind closed doors. The Doctor, so kind and caring with his patients, grossly mistreats the Midwife and sexually abuses his daughter on a regular basis. The Baron is a demanding man who does what he wishes with no regard for anyone else, including his own workers. But was he, in fact, responsible for the death of a local woman? Or was it an accident? The woman's husband, while grieving, knows that he can't prove it either way. The woman's son, on the other hand, is convinced of the Baron's guilt. This leads to an act of retribution that generates even more hostility amongst the villagers. By then, memories of the previous incidents rise to the surface. Suspicion spreads. Distrust builds. People suffer.

All this is told from the point of view of the Schoolteacher, who narrates as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) and is seen as a young man (Christian Friedel). Even though he courts a shy young woman named Eva (Leonie Benesch), he's not a participant so much as an observer, and he begins the film with a direct statement: "I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years, a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered." Indeed, the film plays not as an intimate portrait but as an examination of the facts - cold, hard, and, to the best of its ability, honest. We see into the lives of the villagers, and yet we're emotionally and physically kept at a distance, which probably accounts for the film's beautiful yet haunting black and white photography. It would also account for specific shots that, in the hands of a different director, would reveal everything in graphic detail.

Consider the scene in which the Pastor lashes his children as punishment for lying and disobedience; rather than actually show the act and its emotional aftermath, Haneke films the entire scene from outside the room with the door closed, and he ends it before the act is finished. Also consider a long shot of a coffin being wheeled out of the village on its way to the cemetery; the camera observes it from a far away location, never once cutting to the faces of the mourners flocking behind the carriage. This is not the kind of film that gives closure. It doesn't even pretend that such a thing exists.

The real genius of this film, however, is that the intricate subtexts are in service of a relatively simple story. We may not have all the answers, but at the same time, the goal is not to be confusing; the goal is to present the facts as accurately as possible, at which point we come to our own conclusions. If there are any to come to. Maybe we're being told that, when a repressive way of life is preferred for the sake of maintaining the status quo, a different and more evil form of repression will eventually surface. It could be a totalitarian government. It could be religious extremism. It could even be genocide. Who knows? Anything is possible. "The White Ribbon" is a superb film - carefully paced and cleverly structured, mysterious but not gimmicky, subtle but not lacking substance.
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Comments

Tracked by 5 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 18, 2010 12:49:53 PM PST
D. Thomas says:
This is one of the best reviews, I have read; it sums the film in its entirety.

Posted on Mar 2, 2010 11:06:48 AM PST
Agreed -- great summation of a great film. I like that you recognize that what elevates this film above much of Haneke's work is its narrative simplicity. Oftentimes I feel like I've missed the point of his movies (Cache, 71 Fragments) or that his moralizing is overwhelming (Funny Games, Time of the Wolf) -- though I've admired all of these. In The White Ribbon, however, Haneke unerringly allows his story to bear out its themes.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 2, 2010 4:16:00 PM PST
Thanks for the comment. I have to admit, I'm pretty new to Haneke's films -- the only other movie of his that I've seen is the American remake of "Funny Games," which I felt was frightening but also heavy-handed and unfair in its trickery (the moment the film is literally reversed bothered me a great deal). I suppose I will someday go back and see his earlier films, including "Caché."

Posted on Apr 6, 2010 10:36:43 AM PDT
Hello. This is an excellent review, but perhaps it does more harm than good without fair warning to the reader that the substance of the review details critical plot elements. It may seem trite or juvenile, but you may want to add a "spoiler" warning. I must say I'm quite glad to have watched the film before I read this review.

Posted on May 12, 2010 3:02:35 PM PDT
Panola Man says:
Suffice it to say that I agree with all the comments posted.....with particular emphasis on Michael Snyder's observation that such detailed reviews really should have something on the order of "spoiler alert" at the very top.

In reply to an earlier post on May 12, 2010 3:07:10 PM PDT
What spoilers? I gave nothing of importance away.

Posted on Jul 4, 2010 10:14:56 AM PDT
Please contact me personally about who committed these crimes. I suspect I know, but not sure. Thanks.
martyhogan@sbcglobal.net

Posted on Jul 4, 2010 10:35:58 PM PDT
you do a good job of glossing the story, however, what i want to hear is your interpretation of it. specifically how is the movie's inconclusiveness "the real genius" of the film? and to specifically what "intricate subtexts" are you referring? i have a general sense of what you're hinting at, but it's not helpful unless you give us specifics.

i like your speculation of a repressive society spawning a more pervasive, totalitarian one, but you don't expound on it. such is the real meat of the matter. this is what inquiring minds would like to know.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 5, 2010 7:49:42 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 5, 2010 7:52:56 AM PDT
Part of this film's impact is in the viewer's response to the atrocities depicted. Your review blunts that impact, "warns" the reader ahead of time about what he or she is going to witness. That's not a good thing, particularly in a film like this. I can't tell you how many times I've heard professional reviewers say how wonderfully surprised they'd been by a film -- that for once, they didn't have a good idea of the film's story or plot in advance, and that "surprise" made the film even better -- they weren't biased by facts that shouldn't yet have been in evidence.

Reading all the stuff in your review (and others, not just yours) we'd be eliminated from "jury duty" as being too biased to render a sound and just verdict.

The best movie trailers give you an idea of what a movie is about without revealing anything about what's really going on -- recent movie trailers for the film "Inception" are a very good example. Can't wait to see that film.

Thanks again for your review.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 5, 2010 8:08:04 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 5, 2010 8:12:15 AM PDT
It's one thing to provide an outline of a film, but it's quite another to go into detail that should remain unknown to a first time viewer. IMO, Amazon's reviews aren't for but the barest of glossing, and certainly delving into the deeps of a film's merits, the sort of discussion that can't occur without significant "spoilers," is certainly more than a bit of gloss.

I think some inquiring minds would like to know significant elements of the story prior to viewing, but I'll bet that most would rather see the movie first and then render judgment. I say, join a movie club or start a discussion thread somewhere about the film. But if you must have serious discussion here, be sure to mark it with a "spoiler" alert.
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