Review: Darkness is the draw in ‘The White Ribbon’ |

Review: Darkness is the draw in ‘The White Ribbon’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen. CO Colorado
Copyright Films du Losange Courtesy Sony Pictures German filmmaker Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," nominated for Academy Awards for best foreign language film and best cinematography, shows Friday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – There’s not really a sympathetic character in “The White Ribbon,” the new film from German writer-director Michael Haneke. The closest we get to someone we can truly relate to and feel for is the 31-year-old school teacher, played by Christian Friedel. But the teacher doesn’t have a name; he’s a downbeat and reticent guy; and he narrates the film looking back from his perspective as an old man, with an old man’s rickety voice – we get the sense this is his last-gasp telling of what happened.

But teacher is caring and gentle and maybe even wise, which separates him dramatically from all the other adults in the tiny, insular village in early 20th century Germany that is the setting for “The White Ribbon.” The baron, for whom half the people of the village work, is stern and cold; the village pastor surpasses him in both categories; and the doctor adds out-and-out wickedness to the personality profile. Their wives and co-workers are, on the whole, submissive and dour. Their kids, all of whom play and go to school together in one big batch, are an unsmiling, anxious, suppressed bunch. Against this backdrop, the fact that Teacher embarks on a cautious, slow-motion romance with Eva, a young nanny for the baron, is the rare ray of light, muted though it may be.

So how does Haneke make us care for this unappealing crowd? Start with the look of “The White Ribbon” – which, for good reason, earned an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography. Haneke and his cinematographer Christian Berger shot the film in black-and-white, and capture their actors in a nearly Felliniesque manner – observing them as curiosities as much as characters. The visual tone conveys so much – an ominous tone, the idea that these stories should be taken seriously. And that, as dim as the village looks, there are further layers of activity, personality and history lurking below the surface, all of them darker in shades still.

“The White Ribbon” starts off with an accident involving the doctor. Someone, somehow has put a trip wire across the road, causing the doctor to be thrown from his horse and sent to the hospital badly injured. The incident is revisited occasionally throughout the film, but it’s impossible for Haneke or his characters to fully train their attention on who might have done such a thing, or why – there are many malicious events that follow, most of them even more wicked and all of them cloaked in the same mysterious air.

Everyone is suspect because everyone – Teacher and Eva excepted – seems so capable of evil, so full of something to hide. Wives have died; misfit kids are beaten. The pastor emotionally abuses his children; the doctor outdoes him by verbally torturing his midwife/lover. The white ribbon of the title stands for childhood innocence but, no surprise, it doesn’t make many appearances or even get much discussion. There’s no innocence here.

World War I, which is about to wreak havoc on the planet, is brought up. “The White Ribbon” can thus be seen as a cautionary take about the two World Wars, and how German society as a whole could be overcome by a group consciousness that allows for callousness and violence. But the coming war is mentioned practically in passing, which allows “The White Ribbon” to stand as a more universal, and oddly captivating tale of the mysteries of man’s inhumanity.

“The White Ribbon” shows Friday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.

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