To what extent are the actions of an adult influenced by the events of their childhood? When an entire country goes bad, who is really to blame? Is it the evil does themselves, or does it go back further? Do you enjoy a movie that keeps you thinking long after leaving the theatre? If the answer to that last question is yes, then put The White Ribbon by director Michael Haneke on your Must watch list!
Our story takes place as an admittedly unreliable flashback; our narrator states that he pieced together the story through rumor and assumptions. A small village in Germany in the early 1900's is the setting. Right away we are witness to a horrible riding accident: the village doctor is tripped up on his horse by a wire strung between two trees on his usual riding route. Several other violent incidents follow including the beating of a young boy, but there are no suspects for these brutal crimes. Even worse, the villagers don't seem terribly motivated to find the culprits. We then are introduced, on more intimate level, to the villagers themselves and then the horrible really starts to flow! The town Steward beats his son while in the grips of an explosive rage. The Preacher beats his children in the name of piousness. Don't get me started on the Doctor! The only island of human goodness in the film is in the form of the schoolteacher and his sweet courtship of the Baron's nanny. But the teacher is our narrator, so maybe he's just whitewashing his own role in this scenario. Darn unreliable narrators! On the upside, the movie is absolutely beautiful to look at, even when you can't quite look. The black and white cinematography not only fixes our story firmly in the past but also makes some of the horrors we witness a little easier to look at. The director does not rely on crazy camera angles or tricks to tell the story; Realism is the word of the day here. The scenes usually play out in only one or two different shots depending on the number of characters in the scene. There is no traditional background music; all sounds and music that we hear feel natural. The actors in the film look like "real people", they speak like "real people", they move like "real people"; amazing acting throughout this film. These elements come together to form a truly believable feeling when viewing, you lose yourself in the unfolding of events.
The characterizations, especially of the leading citizens of the village were very interesting. The men in positions of power were never referred to by name, only by title; bestowing on them the mantle of archetype which allows them to be completely awful within the scope of their role. That being said, there are not many "bad guys" or "good guys" in this story. Most of our characters feel very human: conflicted, unsure, imperfect. Which brings me to the children: there is a great cinematic tradition of mobs of evil children in films. Don't think for a second that our director will make it that easy for you!
It is interesting to ponder the narrator's assertion at the start of the film that the events of the film may "clarify things that happened in our country". One thinks of the rise of National Socialism in the form of Nazis, the wholesale slaughter of millions of innocent people, etc... I have watched this film several times and I think I come away with a different take on it every time; I will leave it up to you, prospective viewer, to come to your own conclusion. I know that there are many people who do not like movies with open- ended conclusions, and to them I say: This is NOT the film for you! This movie seems to raise many more questions than it answers but, if you don't mind some mental heavy lifting, the rewards are great.