The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Despite its beautifully austere black and white presentation, The White Ribbon is chiefly concerned with murky grey areas - those places behind closed doors where secrets hide and fear festers. And although it is set in Germany in the run up to the First World War, this is a film that offers a far broader examination of humanity, repression and rebellion than simply scrutinising the environment within which the seeds of Nazism would germinate.

Nothing is certain. Not even our narrator (Ernst Jacobi) - an ageing gent, seen only as a younger man (Christian Friedel) when he was once the school teacher in this small rural town, who freely admits this is only what he remembers. What we get to see is far more detailed than events he can have witnessed first-hand, yet we never see quite enough to be sure of the facts. Then there are the characters - few of the adults are initially, at least, attributed with first names. They are, writer/director Michael Haneke seems to suggest, everymen of their puritanical generation. But though they may represent archetypes, the goings on in their sleepy town are anything but standard issue.

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Early in the film a doctor is thrown from his horse thanks to a tripwire strung between two trees, while later, children fall victims to vicious beatings. But if the crimes out in the community are here presented as random, violent and the perpetrators 'unknown', they fall in sharp contrast to the, easily tolerated, homegrown horrors of child abuse in all its forms. Meanwhile, the faces of the gaggle of children, an ever-present chorus to the town's disasters, may look like sweetness and light, but anyone who has seen Village Of The Damned will know that appearances may be deceptive.

This is a community that has a 'wise monkeys' approach to justice, seeing no evil when it comes to closeted crimes, yet showering opprobrium on those who force it to remove its hands from its eyes by subverting the 'natural' way of things in the town at large - such as the casting out of a family whose son has dared upset the social order by destroying a field of the landowner's cabbages.

It is this tacit endorsement of 'crime' which Haneke seeks to explore. He is much less concerned with the perpetrators of the offences than with those who are culpable of fostering an environment in which such things can occur unchecked or in creating an atmosphere where giving the appearance of 'normality' is more important than taking steps to actually eradicate undesirable behaviour. The slippery nature of the morality on show coupled with the shifting sands of the narrative makes this an uneasy watch - yet it is also a beautiful and masterfully constructed film. Exquisite attention is paid to framing, deliberately keeping information from the audience at times, while at others thrusting it under our noses.

Still, Haneke refuses to make categorical statements, preferring instead to let us question our own notions of crime and punishment. This is cinema of discomfort - don't expect a cushioned conclusion.

Reviewed on: 10 Nov 2009
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Tensions in a German town on the eve of the First World War.
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Read more The White Ribbon reviews:

Leanne McGrath *****
Chris *****

Director: Michael Haneke

Writer: Michael Haneke

Starring: Ernst Jacobi, Christian Friedel, Susanne Lothar, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaussner, Rainer Bock, Josef Bierbichler, Branko Smarovski

Year: 2009

Runtime: 144 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Austria, Germany, France, Italy


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