The White Ribbon Review: Wholly Divine
Disturbing and delicious all at once, arthouse luminary Michael Haneke has done it again.
The White Ribbon, the Austrian director’s latest Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece, astounds us with a monochromatic portrait of a German village on the eve of World War I.
In the agricultural community of Eichwald, power resides in the hands of the Baron, whose estate employs half the population, and the Pastor, the leading light of Protestant values. As long as the children wear their purity-denoting white ribbons and the field hands continue their monotonous lives, the community remains quaint and orderly. But once the harvest season passes and a callous winter sets in, a series of mysterious events introduce chaos and mistrust.
It all begins when the local doctor falls off his horse after tripping over a suspicious wire in his garden. Some time later, a farmer’s wife dies in an accident whilst working at the Baron’s sawmill. But the attacks reach a climax when the midwife’s disabled son is tortured. For the subsequent two-and-a-half hours, the troubled villagers seek retribution.
The brilliance in The White Ribbon is Haneke’s ability to pull the rug from right under our feet. The shock-and-awe director of Hidden, Funny Games and Time of the Wolf brings that same sense of mystery to The White Ribbon through the use of a voyeuristic viewpoint and a detached narrator.
The story is told by an old man recounting his years as the 31-year-old village schoolteacher (Ernst Jacobi), who is enraptured by innocent 17-year-old Eva (Leonie Benesch). We melt over their blossoming romance—carriage rides and picnics. Meanwhile, we hear the muted cries of children beaten and daughters molested from outside bedroom doors in dark corridors. And we are helpless. It is those shocking contradictions that make The White Ribbon so compelling.
And despite its dead-end conclusion, The White Ribbon is striking to look at, troubling to endure, and absolutely worth a watch.