The White Ribbon is a color-washed film that skirts issues of good and evil with black and white imagery adding symbolic depth to the tale. Set in Northern Germany just prior to World War I, we are set up from the outset by a narrator recalling events from many years prior...tying them to later events in Germany without ever fully explaining the connection he is making.
The narrator's veiled connection is the first of many vagaries that take place in a small village where everyone seems to know each other's business. The film presents an interesting story of strange events, casting suspicion many directions before leaving the events open to discussion. There is no neat "ribbon" to tie this package together. Instead, the thought-provoking ending leaves unanswered questions dwelling in the minds of the audience.
The White Ribbon is sort of a whodunnit with a look and feel not unlike the gumshoe films of years past. The audience is introduced to a cast of interesting characters, with a surprising twist regarding the prime suspects...who may not be suspect after all. With the introduction of varied motives and closer inspection of individual relationships, The White Ribbon is able to weave an intriguing tale that leaves open questions regardless of which solution you opt to believe.
Without revealing much in terms of the actual plot, the events depicted begin when a Doctor returns home from riding his horse. As he enters the yard, his horse trips over a wire strung across the road. (Could it be piano wire?...more than one person in the village play...or have played...the piano). The horse tumbles sending the Doctor flying. A broken collarbone and arm land the Doctor in the hospital. Subsequent strange events create suspicion as well as new motives and suspects. The unsolved mysteries culminate in abrupt departure of some residents shortly after the outbreak of World War I.
The White Ribbon succeeds for me because of two primary elements. The writing was outstanding and the cinematography was exceptional. The characters were well developed with intriguing relationships that are slowly developed for the audience to appreciate. The characters and their interactions are gently established through normal, credible events. As we begin to know the characters, possible motives come into focus. The measured cultivation of the characters added suspense as well as engaging the audience in the plot. Although the plot is left wide open, it was satisfying and seemed to accomplish the objective of providing the audience material to contemplate and muse over. My only complaint with the writing was the extended run time and some sluggish pacing. There were some hard stretches in the film where I found myself looking at my watch. I think some additional cutting could pare this film down closer to two hours and improve the pacing drastically.
The cinematography utilized washed colors to create a nearly black and white viewing experience. This effect enhanced the period aspects of the film, set in the early 1900s. The scenes were well framed to set the tone for the action. The scenes are sometimes close and intimate and other times distant and sterile. Even with the washed look, the expressions of the actors and mood of the events are captured well on film. The effect created a rich, consuming atmosphere to draw viewers in.
The White Ribbon selected an excellent cast. The child actors were exceptionally notable. In order to keep the audience guessing, the children had to exhibit innocence at times while maintaining a suspicion of a capability for violence. Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), Martin (Leonard Proxauf), Adolf (Levin Henning) and Magarete (Johanna Busse) were collectively excellent in this role. The younger child Gustav (Thibault Serie) provided a more pure innocence that appeared untainted. His character was incredibly engaging even in a minor but important role. Christian Friedel delivered a strong performance as the lead character (with his narrative delivered by Ernst Jacobi). Burghart Klaussner was exceptional as the Pastor. His character adds some flavor to the film. A strong cast brings Michael Haneke's unique characters to life.
The White Ribbon alludes to acts that include incest, adultery, violence against children, and more. The combination of adult themes and violence caused the MPAA to apply an R rating to the film. A dead body is also shown naked from the waste down. The violence seems to be the more severe of the elements. Much of the adult material is alluded to either through dialogue or scenes that imply more than what is depicted. The use of this imagery will go over the heads of most younger viewers. There were one or two sex scenes that showed no nudity but gave a bit clearer indication of the activity might suggest a bit older viewing audience. There was also some blunt dialogue about incest and sex. A teenage audience would be an advisable starting point for this film. Run time is two hours, 24 minutes.
I enjoyed The White Ribbon for the characters and the concept. The cinematography added to my enjoyment. I was a bit disappointed in the pacing at times, which seemed intentional...making those scenes seem a little bit contrived. There were also a few scenes that did not seem to support the overall themes of the movie that may have been cut without affecting the story. The sluggish pacing was glaring at times. In spite of the pacing, the story is exceptional and superbly caught on film. The White Ribbon is highly recommended. 8/10.
Trailer and images subject to copyright