FILM REVIEW: The White Ribbon
With the critical praise of the recent Michael Haneke film Amour in the midst of the awards season I stumbled across the Palme d’Or winning The White Ribbon a few nights ago. A film set in a small and remote fictional German community of Eichwald in 1913 is the scene for strange and disturbing things.
Filmed in black and white you cannot be distracted from the plain obvious but nothing is as it seems. The narrator begins with the story, clarifying it is from memory and as we know memory can be embellished and altered so we are already in a state of uncertainty. But the film quickly begins with an act of violence. The village doctor is injured, violently. But more interestingly it is deliberate. And so the tale of violence begins.
There is a harsh and rigid quality to the film, rules and regulation. Duty and responsibility. The act and the punishment. Central to the lives of these people is the church and the pastor. His children are the sufferers of harsh punishment as his law is of God and strict morality. But punishment alone does not teach, it creates something crueller within a child or children. His reminder of innocence and purity is made literal with a white ribbon tied onto them.
The children who are numerous posses such a sinister quality. Angelic and innocent with polite manners each hold secrets but with the potential for something and it’s that which makes the whole experience of the film uncomfortable. Even though many things are happening in the lives of the adults in the kids that are making you on edge, waiting. The adults in comparison are flawed deeply. We learn of the doctor and his relationship with the midwife that turns humiliating and cruel. We learn of him sexually abusing his daughter Anna. The baron’s marriage breaking apart following the declaration of his wife’s love for another man. Even the narrator who doesn’t not have the means to marry the nanny Eva has his own dramas. There is one scene in the film that captures the essence of the film and the community of Eichwald. The school teacher finds Martin, the pastor’s son walking precariously on a bridge with the imminent threat of falling and potentially hurting himself fatally. When the teacher reaches him and asked why he did this Martin says it’s to see if God wants him to live. Because if God wants him to live then it must be because God is happy with what Martin is doing.
The film is exceptional. You cannot doubt Haneke’s masterful work because not only is the film intense and chilling it is also filled with so many beautiful moments. My personal favourite was when the pastor’s youngest song brings his own bird that he brought back to health to his father after his was left killed on his desk. The boy says that he wants his father to have him because he’s been so sad since his bird died. The pastor chokes back tears and it’s a really wonderful moment. Another is the doctor’s son who learns about death from his sister Anna. His reaction of anger from a child of five was so truthful. He felt cheated somehow for not being told and having to eventually die. The character of Klara is by far the most fascinating. She is a mix of sweet polite innocence and raging anger as well as her brother Martin who is the victim of his father, the pastor’s punishments.
The performances are brilliant especially from such young actors. And the nakedness of the film having been black and white everything is more focused. The secrets are all bleeding slowly from some hidden wound and by the end we learn of the culprits and even though throughout the film you sense you know who it is by the end you question whose fault it really is. The narrator continues to the end of the film with the words
‘Didn’t we keep our mouths shut because otherwise we would have had to wonder if the misdeeds...of our children weren’t actually the result of what we’d been teaching them?’
And it’s this terrible thought that lingers in your mind