“White Ribbon” Offers Pictures of Germany’s Childhood
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
I collect original photographs by noted photographers. Mostly old black-and-white images that offer a stark beauty in their abstract simplicity. After all, the world as we know it is ablaze in a rainbow of colors, but early photographic technique offered a limited spectrum for photos and films. Today, that’s all but disappeared with the advent of digital cameras that deliver colorful pixels and automatic exposure.
So you can imagine my delight to discover a beautifully filmed movie in black-and-white like “The White Ribbon,” the award-winning drama that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. It was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.
“The White Ribbon” is mindful of an Ingmar Bergman film, austere and dark and full of portent. An art film, as we used to call them.
Alas, nothing is what it seems. Austrian-born writer-director Michael Haneke actually shot this long 146-minute film in Super 35 color and then converted it to black-and-white – a deliberate attempt to capture the visual “feel” of old photographs.
Haneke’s story takes place in a German farming village just prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the 1914 event that ignited World War I. The children of the village live under the authority of a strict baron (Ulrich Tukur), a sexually abusive doctor (Rainer Bock), and a puritanical pastor (Burghart Klaussner). Only the schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) is kind, but he is powerless in this closed society.
The bright-faced children represent innocence under siege. An oppressive environment destined to produce those who will later embrace Hitler and Nazism.
The film is narrated by an older version of the teacher (Ernst Jacobi), now an elderly man looking back on the mysterious events that beset the villagers.
“Accidents” begin to happen. The doctor’s horse trips and gives him a dangerous tumble. A woman falls to her death at the sawmill. The baron’s son is kidnapped. A barn burns down. People disappear.
The villagers become fearful. The schoolteacher confronts the pastor, to no avail.
Is someone behind these dark events? The ambiguous ending is not unlike M. Night Shyamalan's unresolved storytelling (“The Village”) or Lars von Trier's leave-you-wondering films (“Dogville”).
Haneke’s heavy-handed suggestion that actions of this village reflect the ideologies that would eventually lead to two world wars seems a bit like pop sociology. But the abstraction of the black-and-white cinematography, the haunting close-ups, the strong lighting, all are designed to convey a proper distance from which the audience can absorb this doom-laden allegory.
The film’s title comes from the white ribbons the pastor makes the children wear to remind them of the purity from which they have strayed. And “The White Ribbon” is Michael Haneke’s reminder of the purity from which the German people strayed.