Review: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon

A tightly scheduled film festival is admittedly the wrong circumstance under which a person should watch, let alone review, a film such as Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning masterpiece, The White Ribbon. Even under optimal conditions one viewing is probably insufficient. This is a film that demands your attention, and in the tradition of earlier work (i.e. Cache) it provides few easy answers as to what you have just witnessed. One must be part detective piecing together the information onscreen to bring into relief the finer details of its moral parable.

In an idyllic village in the north of Germany, a series of inexplicably violent acts stir the inhabitants’ puritan assumptions, forcing them to confront the ugly side of the human spirit. Weaving together a cross-section of the village, focusing especially on the education of the youth, The White Ribbon is Dickensian in scope, and at times confusing as one tries to keep a tally of all the characters involved. The story is told as prologue to the fascist uprising in Germany, the sins of the parents ushering in a new generation of frenzied idealists. The eponymous ‘white ribbon’ is a kind of scarlet letter used by one family in the film to single out impure behavior. Once marked with a white ribbon tied around their upper arms, the children are supposed to be reminded of their sin in the hopes of cleansing themselves, a clear analogue to the WWII Star of David badges this generation will later help enforce. This example barely scratches the surface of what struggles, familial, religious, even sexual come to a boil in this frank portrait of puritan values in corrosion.

With nods to the masters of cinema, Dreyer and Bergman, this deliberately paced black and white puritan drama plays off serene surfaces, the mostly static and balanced images giving the characters, and indeed we, the audience, a sense of false security in the face of seemingly indiscriminate acts of violence that break through the façade. On the surface there appears to be order, but in many of close-ups of characters throughout the film we see the fissures of doubt and fear, the faces made monumental in their grayscale terrains. In true Haneke fashion the violence comes unannounced in abrupt punctures to the story, assaultive by their lack of sentiment. One scene in particular that garnered its share of groans from the audience came without threat of physical violence but took the form of verbal abuse, so cruel in its intent that it stands out above all else in my mind.

The film, though in no rush to get anywhere, is never boring. We are allowed to linger on the behaviors of the villagers long enough to form our own judgments of them, and perhaps this is part of the point: to understand this kind of judgmental zeal from the inside out. The images sear into your mind by lack of urgency to get anywhere – the final fade to black is perhaps the slowest such fade I’ve ever seen, as if to say “keep looking, there is something you’ve missed”. The film grows in esteem the more I think about it, and will undoubtedly make my top ten by the end of the year.

Mike Rot
Master of War


  1. You are right Rot. The more I ponder this film (and it has stayed with me during the craziness of too many movies in too little time) the more I think it is going to really be one of my favorites on the second time around. The first viewing experience was a lot of work, and I didn't quite understand the WWI references, but after fellow web-critic Jason Gorber pointed out that this is the generation of kids that grow up to be the elite in the Nazi party, the whole thing started to make a brilliant kind of sense. I want to see this again, toute suite.

  2. I remember last year you had this same slow burn appreciation of Synecdoche, right after seeing it you didn't much care for it, and then afterwards it grew on you.

    for me I loved White Ribbon immediately, but it has grown even more in esteem since then. unsettling is the word for it.

  3. I'm looking forward to this and I don't for once doubt that it'll be fantastic but I hope your comparison to CACHE isn't completely accurate. I really wanted to see that film a second time to really make sense of it but I couldn't. I've tried twice and both times couldn't make it past the halfway point.

  4. Only similar to Cache insofar as by the end of the movie you will probably be thinking "now what just happened?" Honestly, I have no idea what happened at the end of The White Ribbon, I think it is a lot to absorb on one sitting.

    aesthetically this is more like Dreyer (one actress in particular is even staged like Falconetti I think) but where Dreyer can be very slow, Haneke has enough going on in this film, so many character arcs to juggle that it doesn't have that same ridiculously long lingering quality of Cache.

  5. Yea, some films work better as they bounce around in your head. The experience of watching THE WHITE RIBBON is not necessarily a 'fun' one, and it is like Gosford Park in that you are always trying to figure out who is who's relation, but again, I'm sure this will be a non-issue second time around, and you can focus on the nuance and the allegory that is the films raison d'etre.

  6. fun is overrated 🙂

    seriously though, I enjoyed this movie, I liked the rhythm of it and I am kind of fascinated by this subject matter, a puritan village unraveling. I like also that in amidst this complex story of atrocities there is this rather sweet love story, such a strange mix.

  7. and Marina, what YOU need to catch is Campion's Bright Star, not sure if it is coming to VIFF. Don't listen to Kurt on this issue, it is, to steal his word, fabulous. I have a review half-written on it somewhere.

  8. I didn't think anything of Bright Star (albeit, due to a projectionist error, I lost the last 15 minutes (mercifully!), but I concur that Marina will love this.

    I'm the only one who didn't like the film that I spoke with. Perhaps because I'm such an enthusiast of the films of Jane Campion, that she came up with a costume weepy (with only half-hearted Keats readings) was very disappointing to me. I'll go back to watching In The Cut and Holy Smoke for my edgier Campion fare and leave Bright Star to the conventional crowd.

  9. Well, Rot, you should be watching CODE UNKNOWN, THE PIANO TEACHER and BENNY'S VIDEO to brush on the Haneke flicks you haven't seen yet. And to whomever borrowed by TIME OF THE WOLF DVD and didn't give it back. Boo-urns. Boo-urns, sir.

  10. I don't have it, wouldn't mind rewatching it actually. I totally have to watch Haneke's back catalogue, I was slow in becoming a fan. Do you own any of those you mentioned?

  11. I don't have it, wouldn't mind rewatching it actually. I totally have to watch Haneke's back catalogue, I was slow in becoming a fan. Do you own any of those you mentioned?
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.


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