Director: Michael Haneke
The White Ribbon is a strange little film and one I found quite disquieting to watch. In some respects it reminded me of the musical Spring Awakening (Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater, 2006) as they are both set in Germany and share some similar themes – abuse and sexual awakening being at the forefront.
I also found the conclusion rather unsatisfying. While you think you have worked out the culprit of the unpleasant episodes in the community – thank in part to the narration of the teacher – nothing is ever confirmed and you certainly never get an explanation as to the motive behind them.
Actually very little happens in The White Ribbon – or rather much of what takes place, certainly the “accidents”, happens off-screen and we as the viewer only get to see the fallout or hear about the incident – usually through the School Teacher.
The children have a creepy air surrounding them – especially the two ringleaders Klara and Martin (played by Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf respectively) which in some ways is borne out of the oppressive nature of their home life. Their father, the Pastor, runs a strict household and the core of the film comes from his, for want of a better word, teachings. In order to teach his children about the dangers of sinning and being disrespectful he makes them wear a white ribbon. On the surface it doesn’t seem much but it is a daily visual humiliation and reminder they are not good enough in their parents’ eyes and acts as the catalyst for an increase in the incidents that rock the otherwise peaceful community in the years leading up to The Great War. As Stacy Title says, “the preacher’s kids have misbehaved and they must wear his scarlet letter: a white ribbon for trivial mistakes. Their shame and the implied but less explicit shame and pain of the other village children, makes them act out in horrible, unimaginable ways.” (922, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)
“Hanke uses a time in Germany before World War I to explicate his point. There is a root to evil and it comes in the form of abuse. In the form of disempowerment.” (922) The outbreak of War seems almost an afterthought as it is announced right at the very end of the film.
“Shot in color and then drained to black-and-white, The White Ribbon sets out to tackle a complicated foe: terrorism.” (922) The film has a fairly bland palette which I think comes from filming in color and then altering it to black and white. While it still has an artistic feel to it the film lacks the dramatic light and shade films shot in black and white have.
I’m not really sure what to make of The White Ribbon. I came away with an uneasy feeling coupled with a lot of unanswered questions. Were they simply acting out against their parents or was it something deeper? And why the high level of violence in the acts? Did the incidents stop due to the outbreak of World War I or did they continue? It seems Hanke is on of those directors that makes for uncomfortable viewing as I also found his latest film, Amour (2012) uncomfortable, if for very different reasons.