Michael Haneke's The White
Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) is an intensely creepy portrait
of a sick society - a rural village whose rotten core presages Germany's
darkest hour. In the months immediately before the outbreak of
World War I, a village at the center of a relatively prosperous baronial
fiefdom grapples with felonious pranks, hidden incest, and deadly accidents,
all of which baffle the community's leaders. As these minor
disasters accrue, all signs slowly point in a direction that the village
elders are unwilling to confront. By the film's end, there is
a distinct suggestion that the village is a microcosmic representation
of the rise of an evil generation in Germany, a generation born out
of a misplaced trust in the outmoded mores of a decrepit social structure.
Parents who believe in tenant farming, puritanical religious practice,
and corporal punishment raise a crop of quietly vicious children who
seem to be conspirators in an unknown plot to destroy the town, or worse.
The way that Haneke paces
The White Ribbon, the way that characters are introduced "in action,"
with hardly a hint of expository dialogue, and his patient, sturdy camerawork
suggest a director who has taken all of the lessons of Alfred Hitchcock
and improved upon them. This is most noticeably achieved through
a great confidence in actors; Haneke allows his amazing cast to shape
characters that are remarkably diverse in their personalities.
The slowness of The White Ribbon is counterbalanced by its unusual
tension - the sense that something horrendous is afoot. Yet
this is not once borne out through shock tactics, grotesque visuals,
or acts of violence. Little of the horror that lurks beneath the
film's surface is conveyed in simple visual terms. The insidious
creeping evil is instead "discovered" as characters experience moments
of seemingly minor revelation, or happen upon an incident that might
otherwise be of little consequence. The aggregation of these things,
however, amounts to a bone-chilling chain of evidence that threatens
to rot the village from the inside out.
photography by Christian Berger helps portray this early twentieth century
village as a place that is, in a way, outside of time. The location
is fictional, and the visual style allows the story to play out in a
way not overly beholden to a specific setting. The film is captured
in long, static shots. There are few cuts, and composition is
a far more prominent feature of the visual style than in most films.
The cast is uniformly excellent.
As the schoolteacher, Christian Friedel lends a youthful, earnest energy
as one of the few people in the village whose intentions appear genuinely
honorable. Rainer Bock plays the doctor, whose riding accident
sets the story in motion; he is one of the most memorably despicable
characters in recent cinema. Also outstanding is Burghart Klaußner
as the village pastor, a fearsomely committed zealot who forces one
of his sons to admit to masturbation and punishes him by having his
hands tied to his bed frame while he sleeps.
The White Ribbon succeeds
as an anthropological investigation and an unorthodox mystery.
There is also room for subtle political allegory amid the frightening
mood. However one might wish to categorize it, it's a film that
operates at the highest levels of cinematic storytelling and technical
Sony presents the picture in an enhanced 1.85:1 transfer that carefully
modulates the black-and-white photography with strong contrast and controlled
gray levels. Blacks are rock-solid, which is especially important
in this film, given its visual style, along with the fact that it contains
many night scenes - both interior and exterior.
The German-language Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is very
strong. The sound design emphasizes the sounds made by the film's
characters. Not only is dialogue most prominent on the track,
but so is breathing, sniffling, and other smaller noises not normally
captured so closely. Although ambient effects are present, surrounds
are used only sparingly. Still, this manages to be an enveloping
track that brings us closer to the film's many characters.
Sadly, there is none.
I'm hoping that this Palme D'Or-winning title will be licensed by
Criterion for a future content-rich release.
The White Ribbon is a challenging, engrossing look at the unintended
consequences of cultural and social stagnancy. Michael Haneke's
film provides a deep and wide range of provocative content, while maintaining
a strangely gripping tension throughout. This bare-bones release
prevents me from placing this otherwise major achievement the DVD Talk
Collector's Series. But even without bonus content, the film
easily merits a Highly Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.