The White Ribbon
It's in German, and it's black-and-white. So we're not off to a good start in terms of mass popular appeal. At least it's not about The War. Or is it? War never seems to be very far away in German films, especially black-and-white ones. And this one doesn't disappoint.
The White Ribbon is set in a small village in rural Germany before The War. Very specifically, in the year immediately preceding the start of the First World War. The story is narrated through the eyes of an elderly School Teacher, told as the events of his youth. The 31 year-old version of himself lives in the up-til-now, sleepy village where life is dominated by the harvest, and three men - the Baron, the Pastor, and the village Doctor.
The story opens when the Doctor, returning home, suffers a riding accident. But this is no ordinary riding accident. His horse trips over a wire deliberately strung between two trees. This incident marks the beginning of a year in which the village sees many more such mysterious and disturbing events. People and property are attacked, a man dies and before long, we have not one whodunit, but a whole collection. So who did do it?
Was it the Baron's wife who suffers at the hands of her authoritarian and unsympathetic husband? Perhaps it was the Pastor's wife, who has to watch her husband beat and humiliate their children? Maybe it was the Midwife, the 40 year old neighbour, secretary, nanny and spurned lover to the Doctor? It could have been the children, fighting a war of attrition against their puritanical and domineering fathers. Or any one of a number of other villagers who have reason to carry a grudge. Who knows? That is one of the elements that make this film fascinating.
Director and writer Michael Haneke ('Funny Games', 'Caché') builds a world where on the surface, everyone has reason to be a happy camper. The harvest is good, there is food for everyone. However, behind closed doors, characters are slowly revealed who we have plenty of reason to hate. The Baron, the Pastor and the Doctor rule their wives, their children and the village with an iron hand. Each in his own way is supremely selfish, controlling and brutal. The women have little opportunity to protect themselves or their children, and the children, brutalised by their fathers, have to find their own way to thrive.
As a simple vengeance tale the film is excellent, but The White Ribbon also works on a whole other level. The film ends with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (for younger readers, the event that precipitated the beginning of the First World War). This, together with the fact that while the children are named, all of the adult characters are only identified by their roles (Chaucer-style) creates a powerful metaphor. The implication is clear. People like these, in a place like this, were amongst those that fought the war and created the history of Germany. Despotic authoritarianism on the village scale was recreated on the world scale by history.
Performances are excellent. In a cast made up largely of children, there aren't too many familiar faces. The only one I recognised is Pastor Burghart Klaussner as the Judge from 'The Reader'. The sixteen year old Maria-Victoria Dragus excels as the Pastor's eldest child and ringleader.
Despite being in German, in black-and-white, long, somewhat slow and a bit about The War, I recommend it. Although I kept stopping to do other things, I made sure I didn't miss a word. It will never appeal to the mass market, but to those who do watch it, it offers a lot of food for thought. It's also worth watching just for the amazing line the Pastor throws his soon-to-be-ex lover as he dumps her - "My God, why don't you just die?". Wow! That's definitely up there with "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn".
The White Ribbon was one of five contenders for the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Just to remind you, the other contenders were Ajami, A Prophet, The Secret of Their Eyes and The Milk of Sorrow. If you can only watch one, make it 'A Prophet'. Then this one.