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From July, 1913 to the outbreak of World War I, a series of incidents take place in a German village. A horse trips on a wire and throws the rider; a woman falls to her death through rotted planks; the local baron's son is hung upside down in a mill; parents slap and bully their children; a man is cruel to his long-suffering lover; another sexually abuses his daughter. People disappear. A callow teacher, who courts a nanny in the baron's household, narrates the story and tries to investigate the connections among these accidents and crimes. What is foreshadowed? Are the children holy innocents? God may be in His heaven, but all is not right with the world; the center cannot hold. Written by
Movies don't come much more austere or art-house friendly than "The White Ribbon," a German film written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. With its stark black-and-white cinematography and deliberate pacing, the film has the look and feel of an old Ingmar Bergman picture - Ingmar Bergman crossed with M Night Shyamalan, that is, since its story centers around a village in pre-World War I Germany where strange and inexplicable things begin to happen. The town doctor is injured in a mysterious horseback riding mishap; the baron's son is found hanging upside down in a barn; a worker dies in a freak factory accident. All of this is narrated by the town's schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who falls for a sweet, shy girl who works as a nanny at the manor house.
The children - most of whom look like they just stepped out of "Village of the Damned" - struggle with thoughts of death and the guilt caused by a repressive society, while the adults - an emotionally rigid and unyielding pastor, a cruel, incestuous doctor - contend with their own inner demons, as they groan under the burdens of a class-conscious feudal system and the weight of their own conflicted desires. The theme seems to be that when people bury their natural urges under a crushing mountain of rules and regulations - whether societal or religious in nature - those sublimated urges will manifest themselves in other, demonstrably harmful ways (killing birds, destroying property, kidnapping and torturing children, etc.). The conclusion we're supposed to come to, I guess, is that it was from just such seeds that the war that was to come would eventually spring. I guess.
I wish I could say that I liked "The White Ribbon" better than I do. It's certainly wonderful to look at, and there is something haunting and hypnotic about Haneke's vision of life in a small German village at that particular moment in time. But the plotting is so obscure, the pacing so funereal, and the overall demeanor so heavy-handed and pretentious that, I'm afraid, it takes quite a bit of forbearance and patience just to get through it all.
Still, the mood and the visuals make it worth the effort.
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