Directed by Michael Haneke
With Rainer Bock, Burghart Klaussner, Christian Friedel and Leonie Benesch
Opens Dec. 30
Like an Ingmar Bergman mashup of Our Town and Village of the Damned, The White Ribbon tells the lacerating saga of collective brutality and guilt in a north German village two decades before Hitler took power. The town is troubled by seemingly random acts of violence on animals, property and a few local children. What's happening? Who's to blame? The perpetrators are not revealed until the film's final shot. Perhaps not even then.
We see the village through five families those of the baron, his steward, a tenant farmer, the town doctor and the pastor and through the eyes of one outsider, a schoolteacher. He and we quickly notice that children are taught to believe that heaven is watching them and hell awaits them. A boy walking precariously on a bridge railing later says, "I gave God a chance to kill me." In this village, though, the role of God is often taken by the children's stern fathers. When the pastor finds out that his son has been masturbating, he binds the boy's hands to the side of his bed. Later, a fire breaks out, but the boy's younger brother refuses to untie him because, he says, "Father told me not to." If the mind-set of complicit Germans during the Third Reich could be explained in one sentence, that would be it.
Kids want to please their parents. When they can't, when they're told they've sinned, tears of frustration and love stain their faces. Bitter relationships, like the doctor's dead-souled affair with the midwife, are balanced by the tender, awkward courtship of the teacher and a governess. Haneke, whose The Piano Teacher and Caché (Hidden) earned art-house acclaim, shoots the darkest misbehavior in the dramatic monochromes of European masters like Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson. This is among the most luminous and painterly of black-and-white films, but what's portrayed will shock or numb you.
Spare and unsparing, this Cannes prizewinner is also, in the serene pursuit of its corrosive vision, a thrilling corrective to standard holiday fare. Other movies don't even consider the enormity of a society's power to crush its people's best instincts. This one says: Don't look away. Look here.
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