×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke's film is immaculately crafted, entirely absorbing and difficult to embrace.

With:
The Schoolteacher - Christian Friedel Eva - Leonie Benesch The Baron - Ulrich Tukur Marie-Louise, the Baroness - Ursina Lardi The Pastor - Burghart Klaussner Anna, the Pastor's Wife - Steffi Kuhnert The Steward - Josef Bierbichler Emma, the Steward's Wife - Gariela Maria Schmeide The Doctor - Rainer Bock The Midwife - Susanne Lothar Klara - Maria-Victoria Dragus Martin - Leonard Proxauf Erna - Janina Fautz Karli - Eddy Grahl Narrator - Ernst Jacobi

Immaculately crafted in beautiful black-and-white and entirely absorbing through its longish running time, Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” nonetheless proves a difficult film to entirely embrace. Stressing, as usual, a conspicuously dim view of the world, the Austrian writer-director here spins a mysterious story about a series of untoward events in a rural village in pre-World War I Germany to advance the notion that malice is arguably the dominant human trait. Haneke’s eminence will provide automatic access to Western art cinemas (Sony Classics acquired North American rights on the eve of Cannes) and prestige Euro tube slots, but there is a medicinal quality to the film that suggests a limit to its appeal even among the faithful.

Perhaps closest to his two-part 1979 TV film “Lemmings” that scrutinizes the ills passed down from generation to generation, but similar as well to a number of his other pictures, including his 2004 international hit “Cache” (Hidden), in its refusal to clearly solve the deadly central mystery, this ironically titled film goes beyond its general analysis of humanity to implicitly suggest some tendencies in the German character and culture that could point to certain developments in the subsequent three decades.

“The White Ribbon” is structured around a string of misfortunes that befall citizens of Eichwald, an agricultural community where half the population works for the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and where the stern Protestant pastor (Burghart Klaussner) wields a strong influence, especially on the children. In the opening scene, the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is severely injured when his horse stumbles over what is soon discovered to be a trip wire someone deliberately stretched between two trees.

Not long after, the wife of a farm worker dies from a fall through the Baron’s faulty barn loft floor; blaming the Baron, the woman’s hot-headed son slashes the boss’s cabbage crop, and the Baron’s son is found beaten and tied upside down in the barn.

Marbled in between such occurrences are slashing glimpses of village life, including the pastor’s brutal caning of his children over a mild disturbance; a woman’s frustration at a musical accompanist who can’t keep up; and a little boy’s questioning of his sister about death, in the course of which he learns that his own mother, supposedly away on a long trip, is no longer living. The rare expression of genuine childhood innocence and good will is occasionally tolerated, but more often squashed, by the grown-ups, but even children’s own true nature comes increasingly under a cloud, to the point where “The White Ribbon” feels like a thematic companion piece to “Lord of the Flies.”

The only warm narrative thread is the endearingly bashful courtship between the pudding-faced young school teacher (Christian Friedel) and 17-year-old Eva (Leonie Benesch), who works as a nanny at the Baron’s estate. The ever-so-gradual blossoming of their romance is a tickling delight, even though one suspects Haneke will throw a monkeywrench into it.

As the harvest season passes into winter and then toward what one eventually realizes will be the start of World War I in the summer of 1914, the village’s misdeeds morph into genuine atrocities, resulting in mutual distrust among longtime neighbors and the arrival of outside police. There is enough potential guilt to be spread around among a number of possible culprits, but this remains a whodunit cloaked both in the mists of time and in the collective nature of the human beings under investigation, and hence, a mystery not of suspense but of suspicion.

The villagers here live a mostly isolated existence far more redolent of 19th century life than of the mechanized 20th century that will soon engulf them, and the film meticulously conveys both the physical realities of the times and of the moral strictures under which almost no family is a stranger to child abuse, malicious behavior, adultery and premature death. About the only leading character immune from such a stigma is the childless one, the schoolteacher who, in a welcoming older voice (Ernst Jacobi), also serves as the sorry tale’s narrator.

Craft contributions are superb in every respect, notably production designer Christoph Kanter’s simple, geographically coherent rendering of the village and Christian Berger’s detail-filled monochromatic lensing. Only music is that briefly heard from natural sources within the film.

The pic’s full German title translates to “The White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story.”

Popular on Variety

The White Ribbon

Germany-Austria-France-Italy

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics (in North America) release of an X Filme Creative Pool (Germany)/Les Films du Losange (France)/Wega Film (Austria)/Lucky Red (Italy) presentation. (International sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Margaret Menegoz, Andrea Occhipinti. Executive producer, Michael Katz. Directed, written by Michael Haneke; screenplay consultant, Jean-Claude Carriere.

Crew: Camera (B&W), Christian Berger; editor, Monika Willi; production designer, Christoph Kanter; art director, Anja Muller; set decorator, Hans Wagner; costume designer, Moidele Bickel; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Guillaume Sciama, Jean-Pierre Laforce; associate producer, Stefano Massenzi; assistant director, Hanus Polak Jr.; second unit camera, Leah Striker. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 20, 2009. Running time: 144 MIN.

Cast: The Schoolteacher - Christian Friedel Eva - Leonie Benesch The Baron - Ulrich Tukur Marie-Louise, the Baroness - Ursina Lardi The Pastor - Burghart Klaussner Anna, the Pastor's Wife - Steffi Kuhnert The Steward - Josef Bierbichler Emma, the Steward's Wife - Gariela Maria Schmeide The Doctor - Rainer Bock The Midwife - Susanne Lothar Klara - Maria-Victoria Dragus Martin - Leonard Proxauf Erna - Janina Fautz Karli - Eddy Grahl Narrator - Ernst Jacobi

More Scene

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]

  • LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 19:

    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

  • Connie Britton BlogHer Summit

    Connie Britton on ‘Friday Night Lights’ Remake: ‘You Need to Let it Go’

    Connie Britton opened up at a fireside chat Wednesday at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn by talking about one of her most beloved roles — Tami Taylor in the fan favorite series “Friday Night Lights.” When asked if a remake of the sports cult film and Emmy-winning TV show is in the works she [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content