The White Ribbon (2009) dir. by Michael Haneke
Starring Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur and Ursina Lardi
By Blair Stewart
In the traditional German kids collection 'Der Struwwelpeter' a thumb-sucking child has his digits cut off by giant scissors to learn a lesson, and another won't eat his soup until he starves to death. If you don't abide by the rules the rules will be taught sharply. In hindsight the subtitle of "A German Children's Story" for the Cannes-winning "The White Ribbon" is most appropriate for this film.
The village of Eichwald sits under a heavy silence as it experiences a fit of 'incidents' in 1913-1914. Tripwire is laid for the local Doctor on horseback; a peasant dies in a grain silo accident, children are found in the nearby forest savagely beaten. As is standard in a Michael Haneke film the threat(s) won't be fully revealed, but the private skeletons of the locals and a few clues will come tumbling out.
Looming behind the tension in the community is Europe's Great War holding its breath. The young schoolteacher is our protagonist (Christian Friedel), who also acts as an uncertain old narrator looking for reason in the madness within and beyond the village during his lifetime.
His fortunes in the town will rise and fall over the seasons along with the strict Priest, the Doctor, a twittering pack of young and the darkly muttering peasants toiling under the Landbaron(Ulrich Tukur from "Seraphine"). This would make for a standard thriller with a sadistic bent if it weren't for a number of factors coming together superbly, none more so than the fantastic performances of children in several roles vital to the story.
Featuring an awkward and surprisingly sweet romance unusual for his work ("Benny's Video" and "Funny Games" would make for terrible family viewings unless your parents are humourless psychoanalysts), Haneke otherwise uses his talent for hidden menace where the most violent on-screen action is a cabbage fields destruction. Stating his intention for "The White Ribbon" as an exploration of terrorism in its many forms and consequences, the Austrian director's black-and-white setting has elements of Clouzot's classic "Le Corbeau" and Miller's "The Crucible", all containing similar themes of secrecy and retribution.
While well over two hours long the story never dragged for me, with a script of over twenty characters carrying a story that could have been adapted from an unknown classic novel. A work of repression made with the confidence of a director in command of his form, "The White Ribbon" joins Haneke's "Hidden" as the best film of his career, and one of the finest of the past decade.
'The White Ribbon' is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment