out of Five
Running time: 144
Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner is a beautifully shot, chillingly acted drama that is both thought-provoking and genuinely disturbing.
What's it all about?
Directed by Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon is set in a small Protestant German village in the years before World War I. Narrated by a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) looking back as an old man (Ernst Jacobi), the story begins as the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is injured when a deliberately placed trip-wire fells his horse.
In the following months, several other strange events occur: the son of the local baron and baroness (Ulrich Tukur and Ursina Lardi) is found brutally flogged, a barn is burned down and a mentally ill child is horribly tortured. Meanwhile, amongst several other subplots, the teacher attempts to woo a young nanny (Leonie Benesch), despite the wishes of her family, the doctor abuses his daughter (Roxane Duran) and carries on an illicit affair with his housekeeper (Susanne Lothar), and the puritanical pastor (Burghart Klaussner) forces his two children (Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf) to wear white ribbons to remind them to stay pure.
The film works on several different levels, such as an allegory for the abuse of power and also a chilling look at the effects of that abuse over time; it's not hard to imagine what the village's children will all be doing in twenty years' time, for example. In addition, Haneke gets terrific performances from a superb ensemble cast, with Klaussner, Friedel and Dragus standing out as the most memorable characters.
The film is also beautifully shot, with crisp black and white cinematography courtesy of Christian Berger. The combination of the setting, the photography and the abundance of creepy-looking blonde children means that the film occasionally feels like a disturbing cross between an Ingmar Bergman film and The Village of the Damned.
That said, the film isn't entirely without problems. It's extremely slow in places and it's often difficult to distinguish the characters, particularly in the early stages, when it's unclear how they relate to each other. It's also unremittingly bleak, with only two characters that could really be called likeable or sympathetic (the teacher and the nanny).
The White Ribbon is an impressively directed, thought-provoking and frequently disturbing drama that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema. Highly recommended.
White Ribbon, The (Das Weisse Band) (15)