Sony // 2009 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 17th, 2010
A film about the roots of evil.
"I was giving God a chance to kill me."
The year is 1913, and World War I is just around the corner. There's something dark taking place within a small village in Germany. A doctor comes home from a trip and is injured by a booby trap while riding into town. A large crop of cabbage is destroyed. Someone's barn is burned down. No one knows why these things are happening or who is responsible. The story is being told many years later by a local school teacher (Christian Friedel) who observed much of what happened in the town during this time, and who explains that his story might help us understand why things turned out the way they did in Germany.
Michael Haneke is a director who tends to send viewers into fits of fascination and frustration (sometimes simultaneously). I regard his Cache as one of the finest films of the past decade, while I hold some measure of mild contempt toward the condescending experiment that is Funny Games. I've no doubt that The White Ribbon will probably frustrate as many viewers as it fascinates, but I'm firmly in the camp of admiration this time around. It's a tremendously controlled and well-crafted film, that also offers a story of significant subtlety and depth. There's a lot to ponder in The White Ribbon, and many rewards for those really willing to meet the film halfway and contemplate what it is trying to say.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the narrator informs us that his story may very well help us understand why things turned out the way they did in Germany. The implication is that Haneke is offering an examination of the atmosphere and social condition that allowed the Nazis to rise to power. So he is, and the film is certainly intelligent and thoughtful in this area (taking great care never to be too obvious about it). While the film certainly demonstrates a great deal of knowledge in terms of the specifics of life in German society circa 1913, the movie is not specifically about Germany. Rather, it deals with larger themes that are still very much relevant today; pre-Nazi Germany is simply a perfect setting in which to examine these themes.
Haneke makes the insightful but difficult argument that the major social problems are rooted in minor social problems which are rooted in misguided good intentions. This is perfectly demonstrated in the character of the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner, The Reader), who so desperately yearns for his children to be moral and good that he is willing to treat them with extreme coldness and cruelty in order to get them there. Though it's never proven, there is a large suspicion that the pastor's children are behind many of the terrible events of the film, and an equally large suspicion that their behavior is an inevitable reaction to the actions of their father. One kind of cruelty leads to another; even though the Pastor is absolutely horrified at the very suggestion that his children would be involved in harming others.
While the actions of the Pastor are rooted in a particular type of religious fanaticism, it isn't really an attack focused on Christianity or even on religion in general, but on a particular type of corrosive mindset (which one we can see currently demonstrated in both the religious fundamentalism of some Middle Eastern countries or in the atheist state of North Korea). Some may think Haneke is just being pretentious when he suggests that the unsolved mysteries of the film aren't particularly important, but he's telling the truth: The White Ribbon is about something far bigger than whodunit.
On a more basic level, those with an appreciation for good filmmaking should greatly enjoy getting the opportunity to soak in this sumptuously-crafted black-and-white film, which at times echoes the best work of late '50s/early '60s Ingmar Bergman (though the film doesn't care as much about its characters as a Bergman film would; the people in this movie are essentially members of Haneke's personal ant farm -- not a weakness, just a difference). The performances are strong across the board. Most of the faces aren't immediately recognizable but they are distinct and memorable, and there isn't a single performance that feels anything less than completely convincing. The film proceeds in a rather sedate manner, as the editing is cautious and the story unfolds at its own quiet pace, but the odds you'll get bored are minimal.
The hi-def transfer is simply superb. I should note that the cinematography by Christian Berger was arguably the best of any film in 2009 (the other contender would be Roger Deakins' A Serious Man), which offers both classically striking imagery and a particularly ambitious use of shadows. When I saw the film for the first time in a theatre; I was struck by how dark some scenes were and wondered whether the movie was being projected correctly. However, the brightness of the lighter scenes reassured me that this was an artistic decision. Watching the film on Blu-ray really enabled me to fully appreciate the nuance of these intensely dark scenes. The darker scenes are blessed with tremendous depth, enabling you to see absolutely everything you're intended to see. Don't mistake these moments as murky. Meanwhile, the brighter scenes just pop with detail. Audio is fine, though the film sports a very sedate track. It's dialogue-centered, as there is very little music (no score, only a bit of source material) and minimal sound design.
The supplemental package is a bit unusual but nonetheless generous and involving. "Making of The White Ribbon" (38 minutes) primarily consists of behind-the-scenes footage from the set, though there are occasional interview clips with Haneke in which the director discusses some of the challenges of making the film and the themes he was attempting to address. "My Life" (50 minutes) is an in-depth documentary on Haneke, covering the director's entire career, his many individual quirks and the themes that run through his work. It's a superb look at a very interesting man, featuring interviews with many of his past collaborators. "Cannes Film Festival Premiere" (18 minutes) offers footage of Haneke's press conference from the festival. Interesting to hear Haneke repeat some of the points he makes in other interviews almost word-for-word; he certainly has his bullet points down but always seems as if he is speaking off-the-cuff. "An Interview with Michael Haneke" (14 minutes) offers another batch of revealing commentary from the director. Finally, you get a theatrical trailer. So, while there's not a traditional making-of documentary or an audio commentary accompanying the film, there's still plenty to learn about Haneke and his film in the supplemental package.
The White Ribbon is a challenging film, but don't let that keep you from giving it a watch. For viewers who enjoy thoughtful, provocative movies and fundamentally pristine cinematic craftsmanship; it's a must-see. The Blu-ray release is top-notch.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German, with English narration)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R