Every once and awhile, a movie challenges it’s viewers to really think about what they are watching and to come to their own conclusions without a neatly wrapped resolution at the end. This is exactly what The White Ribbon, an Austrian/German film, sets out to due and it accomplishes it’s goal wonderfully.
The White Ribbon, directed and written by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, has enjoyed enormous success since it’s release. It won a Golden Globe for best foreign movie, was nominated for 2 Oscar awards including best foreign movie, won 10 German film awards including best film, best director and best screenplay, an European Film Award for best European film plus many film festival (Cannes) and film critic association awards and nominations throughout the U.S. and Europe.
In a small village in Northern Germany, a few years before the start on WWI, strange things keep happening. First, the village doctor is injured when the horse he is riding is tripped by a nearly invisible wire that was tied between two trees. Next, a rich family’s son goes missing until he is found in the village sawmill strung up by his ankles and the victim of a savage canning. This is followed by the disappearance of a mentally disabled village boy who is found tied to a tree with his eyes almost gouged out. There are also other curious things taking place in the village. No one knows who is doing these terrible deeds, but almost every time after something happens, a group of village children are seen nearby which eventually raises the suspension of their schoolteacher.
When the ending credits began to roll, after nearly two and half hours, I was left thinking, “What the heck? The movie can’t end this way! Why does everyone think this movie is so great! Its a ripoff!” I was prepared to write a scathing review, then I spent some time thinking about what I had seen.
I began to realize that Haneke had masterfully sprinkled little clues throughout the movie that if you catch them help you to understand what is going on a little better. It is like a “Where’s Waldo?” picture in that if you look hard enough you can find what you are looking for. With that being said, I still have questions that I probably never be able to answer without watching it several, several more times, but I’m OK with that. I really enjoyed figuring out what little I think I did and that’s what makes The White Ribbon so enjoyable, at least to me.
Along with thought provoking material, The White Ribbon also has some very solid performances. Burghart Klaussner is outstanding as the village pastor. He is as stern looking as a Supreme Court judge. When two of his kids arrive home late from school, he sends the whole family including himself to bed without dinner, the next day he beats both kids with a switch and makes them wear white ribbons to remind them of innocence and purity. Klaussner’s face looks as hard as a rock when he dishes out his form of punishment.
Rainer Brock (Inglourious Basterds) is fantastic as the village doctor. He is kind and compassionate to his patients, but at home he is despicable. He is a heartless ghoul whose only care is satisfying his cravings for lust. Brock easily switches back and forth between his dual personalities.
Many of the young actors are also terrific including Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf as two of the pastor’s kids. They along with the others have a look of wickedness in their eyes that make the “Children of the Corn” look like a bunch of sweethearts.
Newcomer Christian Friedel (village schoolteacher), Leonie Benesch (his soon-to-be wife Eva) and Susanne Lothar (doctor’s midwife) are also quiet good.
While The White Ribbon does have it’s slow parts, the intrigue behind the peculiar happenings in this village make up for it. Haneke’s decision to release this movie as black-and-white was a wise one because it makes you feel like you are watching some really old photographs come to life.
One of Haneke’s trademarks is his movies often leave the viewer with a lot of questions with no simple answers and The White Ribbon is no different.
If you’re in the mood for a movie that will make you think, then The White Ribbon is a perfect choice. If not, watch Dumb and Dumber. No brain needed for that one.
The White Ribbon is currently available on DVD.