There's something deeply disturbing about Michael Haneke's film "The White Ribbon" that isn't evident in the first few seconds, minutes, or hour of the film. The movie opens to a narrator telling us that it all started with the Doctor and his horse.
The Doctor's horse is trotting along when it trips over a wire that someone has lay across the road—the horse has to be put down and the Doctor is in need of medical attention...he's off his feet for a few weeks. What many see as a nasty prank, an equal number of others don't care about. The village just loves a good story, and the community of people becomes its own entity...one that is incredibly frightening.
Ironically, the movie that "The White Ribbon" is most like is M. Night Shyamalan's underrated "The Village". They both deal with secrecy, a cultish society, and sudden acts of personalized violence that effect the village as a whole. That being said, no snobby critic is going to liken the two movies because one is "fine art" and the other is "cheap trash"...but I have enough snob to spare—the movies are very similar.
Haneke is a master storyteller and here he shows his true genius. "Amour", which would come a few years later, is good; but it doesn't stand next to this movie. Filmed in a gloomy and crisp black and white, "The White Ribbon" is set in the early 20th century, pre-WWI.
A small village in Germany is home to about two hundred farmers, a Baron, and his wife. It seems like the ideal life, everyone gets along. The idiosyncrasies of the villagers that have become stereotypical in films and novels are present, but Haneke finds a way to sidestep them rather nicely to make it feel like they're not present. All the neighbors know each other, they snoop without really snooping. This stereotype has become associated with modern-day suburbs..it's what gives films like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Wicker Man" their power.
Multiple stories are told concerning all mater of life in the village. Schoolteachers, nannies, pastors, stewards, and children—they are all vitally important characters in "The White Ribbon".
The first odd happening is the Doctor and his horse tumbling over the hidden wire. The second occurrence, which makes the villagers forget about the Doctor for a time, is the death of a woman. She falls through a rotten wood floor while working.
But the instances are far from being over—if anything, they are just beginning.
The atmosphere of "The White Ribbon" is so clear and so thick that it's impossible not to engage with the film. It's a boiling film, one that evokes such strong emotions. I hated character with murderous hatred, empathized with care, and was horrified by their acts.
The stifling way that Haneke shoots his films works best here. The long shots are dreadfully great, and the naturalistic feeling pulls you back in time.
"The White Ribbon" is a masterpiece. A work of sheer excellence and artistry.
Haneke lets your opinion change over time...you start out with a childish ignorance to the life of the villagers.
The women are kept in line and the children are beaten...the male figure is domineering in "The White Ribbon". Rightfully so, the emotions boil up from how some characters are treated.
Instead of just being a piece that could be entertaining, which it is, "The White Ribbon" sparks great questions.
The ending may dissatisfy some, but I think the final minutes are what makes film so great. Could this story have been told in any other medium as powerfully as it is told in film?
Haneke proves with "The White Ribbon" what makes cinema a fine art.
Score: 4 out of 4 stars