The White Ribbon
Review by Jack Foley
IT CAN sometimes be easy to fall into the trap of bestowing too much praise upon certain directors.
Hence, while some critics have been lining up to hail German director Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon as yet another masterpiece, it would be tempting to follow suit in spite of any misgivings I may have personally felt.
Alas, I’m not going to… The White Ribbon is a well made, thoughtfully written and provocative film in many ways, but it’s also bum-numbingly long, self-consciously ambiguous and not at all satisfying.
Haneke establishes a scenario in which evil deeds rock a pre-First World War German village to its very core… but doesn’t see fit to furnish viewers with the answers typically required of a mystery of this kind.
He’s toyed with viewers before, of course (with Hidden and Funny Games), but seldom have his motives seemed so calculated and cold. The White Ribbon is therefore more of an intellectual exercise, and a film student’s dream, rather than anything remotely entertaining.
Shot in black and white, the film picks up as a teacher narrates how a small Lutheran village in northern Germany in 1913-14 came to be plagued by a series of increasingly disturbing incidents, kickstarted when the local doctor is maliciously felled from his horse.
Children’s innocence is corrupted and questioned, family motives are put to the test, while the existence of the feudal system that has served as a bedrock for the village’s inhabitants for ages is also placed in jeopardy.
Haneke would have viewers believe the film serves as a metaphor that works as a fore-taster of what was to come in German history, with the advent of Fascism, as well as on a global scale whenever the same model is applied to any fanatical religious or political group.
And there is a certain fascination in seeing the complex machinations of his screenplay at work, especially when showing the way in which evil is allowed to spread almost unchecked through generations.
But crucially, Haneke neglects to provide his audience with anything to really lift the sense of gloom, depression or evil inherent in the majority of the film’s running time.
There is little or no humour, characters remain detached and largely unlikeable (even the children!) and his failure to deliver a satisfactory outcome is unforgivable after such a lengthy, taxing journey.
I’m not one who requires happy or pat endings per se… but in a film of this nature some form of either wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Sadly, Haneke is neglectful, even scornful, of his audience, requiring them to do a lot of work without any reward and operating on a higher level of intellect that almost feels patronising.
The end result is a film that left me cold, discontented and distanced to the point of being angry. But then Haneke probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
In German, with subtitles
Running time: 144mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: March 15, 2010
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Michael Haneke interview
- Michael Haneke - Movie Gallery