An invisible tripwire lashed between two trees sends a doctor crashing off his horse and into hospital. But that mysterious ‘accident’ is just the start of the strange and increasingly terrible crimes in a quiet German village on the brink of World War I.
Filmed like a miraculously preserved aging photograph, told like a great novel by its elderly narrator some 40 years later, The White Ribbon is subtitled “A German Children’s Story”. But this dark fable is really Michael Haneke’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Pets are killed. Cabbages are beheaded. Women are humiliated. And again and again, children are abused while being forced to wear a white ribbon of “purity”.
A pastor binds his eldest son’s hands to allay his fears of the boy’s night-time activites. A widowed doctor guiltily molests his 14-year-old daughter. A mentally disabled child is found beaten to a pulp in the woods. Funny games, indeed.
What history of violence are these victimised blond cherubs destined to pass on in the decades to come? It’s 1914. You do the maths. No wonder Haneke shoots them like extras from Village Of The Damned.
Severity like this is easy to admire and hard to love, so it’s some mercy that The White Ribbon never casts the shadow of fascism too thickly. Violence in the Austrian filmmaker’s movies usually assaults us from off-screen, but his real surprise attacks here are the oh-so-tender scenes of shy romance and cheeky humour, shuttled in via the lovely sub-story of a geeky schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) tentatively courting a young nanny (Leonie Benesch).
Carefully unwinding the movie over 144 minutes, Haneke keeps the drama patient, the tension tight. Something always feels just around the corner. Something bad. Enigmatic, suspenseful, expertly crafted, superbly acted and rich enough to be a miniseries (the original plan, in fact), The White Ribbon is also Haneke’s most beautiful movie.
Hidden and The Piano Teacher cinematographer Christian Berger shot the movie in colour, drained it away and digitally sharpened the image, leaving behind stunning monochrome imagery that picks out facial expressions with alarming immediacy.
So it’s hard to fault this remarkable movie from Europe’s most revered modern director, a film that feels too superior to be called anything other than a masterpiece. Then again, superior is the word. The only thing that makes The White Ribbon gleam a little coldly is that you sometimes get the feeling that’s exactly what its maker thinks it is, too. Still, we’re not about to argue.
Extras were unavailable at time of going to press, but we can tell you there’s definitely no blooper reel. Next time, Michael, next time…
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