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Case Number 19217

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The White Ribbon

Sony // 2009 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // July 5th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Daniel Kelly wears a white ribbon all the time. It's awfully pretty.

Editor's Note

Our review of The White Ribbon (Blu-Ray), published June 17th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Controversial filmmaker Michael Haneke returns to depict the seeds of evil being sown in a small German village prior to the First World War.

Opening Statement

The White Ribbon was the source of much acclaim last year. It scooped the coveted Palme D'or at the Cannes Film Festival and received two Oscar nominations, with strong word of mouth following as it received limited release across the world. Typically for Haneke, the movie is a dark, gloomy, and rather pessimistic affair, but also compelling and beautifully shot. The White Ribbon may not be a feel-good extravaganza, but it examines the roots of fascism in Germany with depth and expertly structured storytelling.

Facts of the Case

After the local doctor is tripped up and hospitalized due to a hidden wire, a small German town is slowly thrown into a spiral of despair and tragedy, as undesirable and sadistic events continue to occur at a disturbing rate. The story is told from the perspective of a school teacher (Christian Friedel) who witnesses as the town is turned from a remote rural paradise into a place where abuse and anger are doled out on a daily basis by the leading authorities, and in which evil acts are having a profoundly negative effect, not least because the perpetrators of the deeds are akin to elusive phantoms.

The Evidence

The White Ribbon is a stunning film to look at; visually it's a definite masterpiece. The story is captured in haunting black and white tones by cinematographer Christian Berger. The film is an aesthetic delight, inventively shot and positively dripping with mood and melancholic uncertainty. I've rarely seen a film in which the visual presentation captures the narrative tone as acutely as The White Ribbon, the project thoroughly deserving the Oscar nomination it received for cinematography. Haneke's productions as a general rule are sharp looking endeavors, but The White Ribbon is possibly the most attractive outing yet for the filmmaker.

The only character the audience really engages with is the schoolteacher played by Friedel, and the newcomer does a smashing job in the only likable or humane role on offer. My key complaint with the The White Ribbon is that it is overly cold to the touch, Friedel's earnest and game performance adding a much needed dose of personable characterization to the proceedings. Haneke provides his leading man with a timid love interest (Leonie Benesch, Picco), which helps to soften some of the film's other much harsher elements. Without little additions such as that, The White Ribbon would be almost cruel in its unrelenting bleakness, and its message might have been lost in a mire of torrid characters and depressing set-pieces. At least with Friedel's affable performance and the touching romantic subplot, the film has some heart under its thick-skinned and aggressively bleak surface.

Watching the twee village fall apart is fascinating, Haneke deploying a vast array of characters and intertwining subplots to uncover themes of child abuse, religious domination, and torture. The film is rife with interesting (though not especially piquant) figures, which the audience comes to understand and pity, but a true emotional connection never really seems in the cards. Haneke paints the adults in his town as deplorable and gross human beings, prone to acts of serious perversion and violence. Not all of them mean badly, but in their cold-hearted way, each is nasty person, leading Haneke to a denouement that never confirms what audiences will so strongly suspect concerning the local atrocities. Without putting too fine a finger on it, it's obvious that Haneke took a little inspiration from Village of the Damned in his incarnation of the German kids, a group of sinister and unnerving looking youngsters to say the least. Haneke utilizes the children to highlight how the evil of the elders is rotting away at the youth's innocent cores, and surging the town into a state of fear and outright moral panic.

By the end, The White Ribbon does muster a sort of understated and chilling tension, but the point is clearly to draw parallels with the town and the immediate future of German politics following World War 1. Haneke doesn't ladle on the comparisons too heavily and retains an imaginative subtlety, allowing viewers to casually join the dots at their own comfort and leisure. The story itself is a long and complex one, well told and presented by the filmmakers, but ultimately it's the fascist subtext in The White Ribbon that really allows it to flower into a unique and challenging cinematic experience.

The DVD is a disappointing bare bones product (the Blu-Ray appears to have gotten all the bonus content), leaving standard-def viewers high and dry. Sony has done a grand job of presenting the luscious visuals on this disc; it's a brilliant transfer and one that really packs the depth and detail of Haneke's potent imagery. The sound design is good too, and the subtitling and German audio track sync up well to finalize a strong technical DVD. It's just a pity about the lack of added features.

Closing Statement

The White Ribbon is a resonant and haunting film, with some intriguing points to make and a spate of very strong scenes to its name. It perhaps lacks the soul and humanity that defines the very best films, but given the production's underlying nature, perhaps that's the point. Nobody could accuse Michael Haneke of making charming or lovable motion pictures, but by the same token they're not dumb either. The White Ribbon follows the same sort of tone that has defined the German director's career, one of intellectually stimulating brooding and sadness.

The Verdict

Sony deserves a slap for giving standard-def consumers a vanilla disc, but otherwise this is a film worth seeking out. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 88
Extras: 0
Acting: 90
Story: 92
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• English
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Foreign
• Mystery

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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