Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Stars: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Leonie Benesch, Leonard Proxauf, Burghart Klaussner, Maria-Victoria Dragus
The Story: Prior to the advent of World War One, a simple rural community in Germany experiences a series of strange, violent goings-on. The town doctor is badly injured by a malicious prank, while the ruling lord’s own child and his crops are brutalised. Events suggest a growing displeasure in the common folk, as well as a latent brutality emerging alongside a dissipating innocence as the seemingly angelic children come of age.
The Buzz: Directed by acclaimed Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, this film won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and won a Golden Globe and was nominated for two Oscars and this year.
Presented in a stark black-and-white, this thoughtful and evocative film captures the mood of a community that was soon to become an outmoded relic. It is told as a recollection of memories by a school teacher (Friedel) who was a key member of society.
In a sense, Haneke’s film marks the beginning of the end – life in Germany would never be the same again once the Great War – as World War One was known when a second such war seemed inconceivable and distant – came and went.
The titular white ribbon refers to a harsh punishment the town pastor (Klaussner) inflicts upon his children (Proxauf, Dragus). In admonishing their youthful misdeeds, major breaches of moral code in his eyes, he ties the ribbons – symbols of purity and innocence – to remind them of what’s required of good Christian people. The ribbons are removed once he is satisfied of their improvement.
The teaching of this life lesson takes place as unsettling incidents beset the town. On the face of things, the people are satisfied with their lot. Their harvest is adequate and they serve a lord – a Baron (Tukur) to be precise – who may not be warm, but who isn’t cruel or exceedingly demanding either.
Still, perceived slights feed simmering tensions inherent in a class system. Among the younger generation, a deference to authority is cast aside in the face of apparent injustice. As things start to fall apart in startling fashion, in the community at large as well as within families, loss of innocence and a defiance in the face of strict regulation is a recurring theme.
The narrator, who during those strange days falls for the one remaining paragon of virtue, the pretty young nanny (Benesch) to the Baron’s twin children, comes close to uncovering what really happened and is turned back by angry denials.
In the end, there is a great sense of tragedy and fatalism about what is implied, and about the ugly truth in spite of appearances.
Haneke’s microcosmic study of inevitable change and decay to a societal structure due to common foibles – ‘things fall apart’ as the axiom goes – and the dark side of human nature is thought-provoking and nostalgic at the same time, such that it leaves an indelible mark.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.