Movie Review: The White Ribbon (2009)

Brilliant authentic historic setting w/puzzle _ 8/10

The White RibbonA word about my rating system for movies:

The scale is 1-10 and the rating is a measure of both my own enjoyment and my appreciation from an artistic perspective. In this case, my artistic appreciation exceeds my enjoyment, yet I have a fondness (enjoyment) for the film because of elements of the appreciation. For example, artistically, especially photographically and emotionally, I regard The White Ribbon as a 10. From a plot perspective, I find the movie conventionally exasperating and irresolute… but I’ve come to be more open minded about these story preferences of mine, which have come from a young prime-time arrogance and mental compulsion. The 8 ranking, thus, should be taken as an extremely high regard… reasons to follow.

Directed by Michael Haneke
Story by Michael Haneke
Screenplay Michael Haneke

Christian Friedel … The School Teacher
Ernst Jacobi … The School Teacher (narrator)
Leonie Benesch … Eva
Ulrich Tukur … The Baron
Ursina Lardi … The Baroness
Fion Mutert … Sigi
Michael Kranz … The Tutor
Burghart Klaußner … The Pastor
Steffi Kühnert … The Pastor’s Wife
Maria-Victoria Dragus … Klara
Leonard Proxauf … Martin

The broad outlines of the story and its setting are straightforward:

From July 1913 to the beginning of World War I, in a small northern German farming village, a series of strange hostile incidents occur. A wire is strung to trip the horse of the town doctor, sending him to a remote hospital with a broken collar bone; a woman falls to her death in a barn through rotted planks; and a couple of children—from both the gentry side and the commoner side—are tortured. The story is narrated by the teacher in retrospect; it covers his own young love ambitions as well as accounts of key figures in the town: pastor, baron, doctor, and lead working man. We are guided thru attempts by the community to determine who the miscreants are, up unto the overwhelming of the community by the coming of war. [The inception of WW1: a Serbian nationalist, on June 1914, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This led to a spat among royals and the Great Meatgrinder for others.]

Back to our prototypical German farming town. The black and white camera work is beyond wonderful. It’s as if three dimensional real people popped out of the photo on the DVD jacket, the authenticity is practically scary—the clothing, the buildings, the woodwork, the technology. Quite frequently, the camera pans over vast horizons of wheat in the fields or snow covered countryside… actually, mostly the camera is not panning, simply opening the still lens while the narration continues. The dialog is in German, so you will see the subtitles at the bottom of the frame. My mom, who watched the film with me, found the subtitles bothersome, mainly because her eyes aren’t what they used to be.

It’s true, without the facility to read the subtitles quickly one’s experience of The White Ribbon will likely be negative. Sad. I have a special situation that enhances the appreciation of the movie: I married a woman who as a five-year-old girl immigrated to the US from Germany, and her parents were born and raised in just such a little Germanic town. Indeed, her father was a nine-year-old boy at the outset of WWI and I remember having conversations with him about what it was like to live over there during that time. My impression is—Heinrich Hercher did not speak English—as a regular civilian you kept your nose out of politics the best you could, and if you were lucky the landed classes would treat you well. But in a war condition, someone else’s landed classes would send men in uniforms and intimidate you into obedience or else.

I can completely imagine Herr Hercher as one of the workers or tradesmen in the film. (He was actually a skilled tailor.) What is so remarkable about The White Ribbon is it feels as if it has been made in the same era as it covers. One feels one isn’t so much watching a movie as entering a time machine, as if someone opens a window at one of the actual buildings and you crawl through as a fly on the wall witnessing one routine event following another. This also leads to my ‘enjoyment’ objection: the film and literature genre known as naturalism or ‘slice of life’ has never much interest for me. American films tend to be much more romantic and idealistic-plot oriented, where the guy gets the girl or the crime is solved.

European films, however, seem to lean toward naturalism: that is, “This is the way life is in all of its ups and downs, highs and lows, signifying not much.” Sometimes the artist inserts a romantic element, such as Haneke does in this piece with the slow suggestion of whodunit or with the young teacher (Christian Friedel) falling in love with Eva (Leonie Benesch). Most Americans don’t have the patience for naturalistic art; they want to see something affirmed… even if it’s the military drone-targeting a Pakistani wedding party to kill a terrorist ‘who hates us for being good.’ But non-brainwashed and non-sandhead Americans, too, i.e. peaceloving, freethinking anti-state Americans, tend to prefer movies with a happy resolution. [Personally, I can watch the ending of Shooter 24/7.]

Americans tend to want to see justice, however twisted the concept has become. In The White Ribbon, does justice prevail? Does it emerge? Well, I’m going to let the readers see for themselves. I will say that whatever happens in the justice category, it’s virtually indistinguishable in emotional scale from scenes where the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) cruelly punishes his children, or the doctor abuses his live-in assistant, or the widower of the woman who falls thru the boards berates his first-born son, etc. Not that all the ordinary scenes are negative, but they tend to be thanks to the series of threatening incidents. I so appreciate seeing the way people of that time and place actually behave; here’s a scene that really makes an impression:

The teacher pines after Eva, then eventually decides he wants to marry her. He makes arrangements to ask for her hand from her father, who is entirely working class and reluctant. Just the manner in which the interview proceeds, with the teacher coming to their house, the father coming in from the fields (or the blacksmith shop, whatever) and gazing at the teacher’s smooth hands. But the father doesn’t really put the teacher down, more he establishes an authority that is not to be questioned, insisting that the teacher will not be able to have Eva unless certain conditions are met. It’s pure patriarchy, and the essence of the encounter is so, well, universal for that era.

Finally, another observation most viewers will come away with:

How in the heck do contemporary Germans (and other actors from Europe), especially the younger ones, manage to recreate these roles so convincingly? It was such a different time, even in Europe. Think of all the changes in American culture since 100 years ago. SunFLOWerHow many actors are able to be these earlier characters? Perhaps it’s great direction. Perhaps the settings are so authentic, the actors fall into their roles naturally. In any case, I’m totally impressed. Magnificent.



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