When a series of strange and increasingly malicious accidents befall a small rural village in Germany, the townspeople are slowly stirred towards rebellion in the midst of the brewing political and social unrest enveloping Eastern Europe in the years leading up to what will be the first World War. An historical anti-fairytale from acclaimed writer/director Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon explores the beautifully bleak and repressed landscape of rural pre-WWI Germany while allegorically depicting the heavy influence and inevitable consequences of fascist indoctrination.
The story is narrated by the town’s school teacher (who’s name is never mentioned) as he reflects on the strange incidents that gripped his hometown when he was a young man. The quiet unassuming village, structured around the lavish and expansive baron’s manor, tastes it’s first major scandal when the local doctor is nearly killed after being thrown from his horse after returning home from a long trip. The ensuing investigation points to foul play after the cause of the horse’s spill is traced to a thin wire tied low to the ground in front of the doctor’s house. This marks the beginning of the unusual accidents and as they progress and become more and more violent, it becomes apparent that the targets of these acts are of the aristocratic tier of the self-contained society.
Though Haneke’s White Ribbon is an artfully crafted film with layers of symbolism I probably can’t even begin to unravel or even understand, to me, and likely the average viewer, it unfolds like a slow paced mystery with no clear motivation or satisfying solution after two and a half hours. Like many of his films, the pacing is painfully slow at times, but unlike Cache or Funny Games, there’s hardly any tension and very few thrills making the whole experience meditative but ultimately unrewarding. The entire film feels like two+ hours of set up with no pay off. However, from a technical standpoint, the film contains great performances from its cast and is beautifully shot. Unfortunately it’s not enough to save it from a story that’s presented like a novel being read to you by your grandfather.
Though shot entirely in black and white, The White Ribbon proves to be a visual treat with a compositional beauty that can be likened to beautifully stoic old photographs of the early 1900s. The landscapes all have a dark and majestic quality and the 1080p HD AVC codec framed at 1.85:1 makes every shot look like a clean crisp Ansel-esque photograph. The black levels are also controlled nicely, though a loss in quality can be seen in some of the softly lit night scenes, and overall Haneke does an excellent job of maintaining detail and depth in grayscale. Though it’s by no means vibrant, it’s easily one of the most unique looking films to come by in quite awhile.
White Ribbon is very much a dialogue driven movie and as such the German DTS HD Master Audio presents dialogue that is very crisp and clean. There’s very little offered when it comes to sound, mostly the ambient noises of the small agricultural village and occasional tension building crescendos. Though it won’t necessarily give your surround sound system a proper workout, it’s part of Haneke’s intended experience and helps narrow focus on what the characters are, or are not, saying.
My only real beef (and I’m not sure if Audio is the right section to complain about it) is that the subtitles are incredibly difficult to read. The letters are white, rather than the usual and easier to read yellow, and the font is unusually small creating several occasions where I missed crucial dialogue when the white words were practically invisible over a white background. Definitely annoying.
There’s a somewhat satisfying triad of features here, and though it would’ve been nice to have more content explaining his film and method in depth, Haneke has a reputation for being oblique. The extras, totaling in at about an hour and half, include:
- Making of “The White Ribbon”
An relatively in depth behind the scenes featurette showing the making of White Ribbon. Includes footage on set and interviews with the auteur himself Michael Haneke. If your going to watch the film, watching this featurette is an absolute must for understanding what exactly the story was about. Before watching this I was pretty confused regarding the thematic and emotional core of the film. This definitely helped explain the purpose of the story a bit and put everything into perspective.
- My Life
A mini biography about the filmmaker Michael Haneke. Haneke discusses his life leading up to and during his career as a writer/director and admits to his ambiguous and open ended style of storytelling.
- Theatrical Trailer
The White Ribbon is not a masterpiece, but considering Haneke’s style and past films, it’s a commendable addition to his cinema canon. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful looking film that accurately portrays Germany during the pre War period, but as a thriller it leaves much to be desired. At it’s best it is a dark and unsettling look at religious oppression/repression but will only leave you with a lingering feeling of unease and little else.