The White Ribbon is an incredible film that, if you have read reviews, is most definitely deserving of the resoundingly positive reviews its gotten. It is a film that knows there are never easy answers and trusts its audience to fill in blanks. Of course, this happens more often than not with foreign films but when one is so accustomed to being spoon-fed it is always refreshing when you are invited to engage in the story and try to piece things together and aren’t handed everything.
The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. It is in what can only be referred to as glorious black and white, and shows you all the flexibility and the marvels that monochrome can bring to a film whether it be blinding snow, sharp silhouette, haunting chiaroscuro, high contrast and perfect underexposure. The thought of color in this film is quite literally repulsive. It’s the kind of feat that causes the American Society of Cinematographers to essentially say “Union allegiance be damned this is the best work of the year” by awarding it top prize. It informs the film and enhances it and never makes itself the center of attention.
It’s hard to discuss a film of this caliber without lauding a cast whose depth of talent is beyond reproach and whose ability runs so far down the supporting scale that it’s mind-boggling. As the scenes unravel themselves, and you meet the characters, you are consistently left wondering “Who is that?” after particularly well-played scenes. Especially Berghart Klaussner, The Pastor, who is chilling in a Bergmanesque fashion; Leone Benesch who in one scene perfectly plays the impossibly contradictory actions and emotions as indicated by the voice-over narration; Janina Fautz as Erna, the Steward’s daughter, who in the end is the overlooked and in a certain regard the reviled hero; Susanne Lothar as the dependent and taken-advantage-of midwife, and the entire young cast, including Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf; believe it or not this list could go on.
It is a narrative tapestry that pulls together five narrative strands and slowly but surely you start to see how they all intertwine and how the fates of each family unit affect the other. You ultimately get what director Michael Haneke was in search of which is an examination of the psychological landscape that existed in the children of Germany on the eve of The Great War, the same children who would grow up and bring war to the world again.
It is a film which seeks to leave its impact through certain minimal elements. For example, there is no score the only music we have are the Baroness and the Tutor rehearsing, and more lastingly there is the once repeated haunting hymn of the children’s choir in the church. The minimal visual treatment exemplifies itself when there is a beating we hear it and sit watching the door. Instead of seeing what goes on behind the closed door, we are haunted by only the sound.
This film is immensely watchable and the kind of tale you can watch unwind for much longer than it does run, which is impressive as it already runs a hefty 144 minutes. Needless to say this film is expertly paced and keeps each strand of the story equally compelling such that you want to keep going to see what happens in one or the other.
The edit both visually and in terms of sound is fantastic. Narratives are juggled deftly and kept in order and there is one audio cut from a piece of farm equipment droning to a pig mid-squeak; the cut is also visual but is especially inspired in terms of sound.
Not only is this a film whose writer, also the director Michael Haneke, juggles many storylines but he does something which seems so much easier for the foreign filmmaker which is to make a film heavily featuring kids which isn’t a kid’s movie but a serious drama. It is also an interesting piece because it sets you up to not get all the answers because you see early on that the narrator doesn’t have many, if any at all, as he has limited omniscience and when he does have an idea he doesn’t push hard enough.
The White Ribbon is not only a great film but an important one. It is one that will cause you to discuss it for quite a bit afterwards and is the latest great work in a very accomplished career for director Michael Haneke. It’s the kind of foreign film that should most definitely be making more of a dent as its appeal is universal and should not be kept to the arthouse set.