Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

The White Ribbon


Review by Matt Starr

Michael Haneke has made some of the most challenging and symbolic films of the last fifteen years with two of my favorites being Funny Games and Cache. Both are films that are unorthodox in their message and delivery. Haneke has always been a director that is more focused on theme and message than plot details and this is why a lot of people can get frustrated at his films.

The White Ribbon is slightly more conventional in its narrative and message but will still leave viewers with questions. The story is set in a Protestant German village right before the onset of World War 1. The opening scene has a doctor riding horseback on his way home when his horse is upended by a trip wire attached to a tree causing the doctor to fall off and sustain severe injuries.

This would be the first in an ongoing series of malicious events. None of the townspeople know who is perpetrating these acts nor why. The audience begins to figure out about halfway through the film and then finally one of the characters realizes who is behind them but none of his peers are willing to listen to his accusations. Perhaps they realize he is right and that the truth is so terrible they would rather just ignore it.

Haneke’s small German village is an allegory for the whole of Germany and their mindset and behavior before the beginning of World War 1and perhaps and glimpse of the behavior that led to the creation of the Nazi party. There are very few innocent people in this village but at least Haneke left some room for people not yet corrupted by the evils of their peers.

The White Ribbon is not as provoking as the other two films I mentioned but is another excellent effort from one our most cerebral and foreboding filmmakers. The allegory is clear but after the film ended I still had to wonder why the guilty party was committing the evils that they were and why people were letting said party get away with it. Why do the oppressed take out their frustrations on the innocent?

Hopefully a lesson learned from history.

4 / 5 stars


Review by Eoin O’Faolain

Many critics claim that German-born director Michael Haneke is the European director of the decade. Following up his deliberately provocative Funny Games (which he remade in 2007) with Code Unknown in 2000, Haneke directed a string of films that wowed critics and made a significant impact with art-house film audiences, culminating in Hidden (Cache), a post-colonial guilt-imbued mystery that won many an offbeat award. Haneke’s follow-up, The White Ribbon, sees the director outdoing himself yet again, delivering another curious tale of sadism that will probably see him win an Oscar to add with the Palm D’Or that the film won earlier this year.

Set in the early 20th century, The White Ribbon starts with an accident. A doctor riding his horse back home trips over a rope and is injured. What ensues is not so much an investigation of what happens, but rather a look at the lives of the inhabitants of a rural village through the eyes of a slightly naïve school teacher. We learn about the pastor who imposes strict rules over his children, the doctor abuses his own daughter, the village’s baron belittles the farmers, and some of the more innocent and doted children are being severely and anonymously attacked.

The film is shot in glorious black-and-white, not only emphasizing a sense of time and place, but also to play with the notions of right and wrong displayed by the adults, but ironically doing more damage than they could possibly imagine. And this is the very theme of the film. Violence permeates every level of this idyllic society. The adults punish the children without reason or valid explanation, attempt to instill a sense of obedience. The children are hurt, and repress their hatred. As the film progresses, we can only assume that it is the children who are committing the mysterious crimes, but the film provides no real conclusion, ending on the threat of war as news is delivered of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, and giving the village’s problem’s a global scope.

But Haneke, for all his deliverance of great performances and stunning cinematography, seems locked in a feeling of bitterness, if not hatred. His films, from the boys of Funny Games, the perverted Piano Teacher, and the dark past of Cache’s protagonist, are all deliberately dour. They bask in human misery, providing no glimmer of hope or humanity. Haneke has openly admitted to doing so, as if making some sort of anti-Hollywood statement that we are complicit in the misery of humanity. It’s no wonder that he’s so well received by intellectual Europe, a group of people who get masochistic assurance from their middle-class guilt. But if Haneke’s intention is to show how the people in power (whether it’s a ruler, preacher, or parent) can screw up their followers through aggression, then he’s not saying something particularly profound. Every neurotic sitcom character has a similar back-story.

Coldness is also one of Haneke’s big problems. There’s no one to sympathize or like in his movies, especially in Cache. In The White Ribbon we get the protagonist of the school teacher, and we see his sub-plot of his relationship with a new nanny. But it feels labored and largely inconsequential, almost as if it’s a calculated (but flawed) attempt by Haneke to deliver some warmth in the face of his critics.

Ultimately, Haneke makes films that are cold intellectual attempts to push our faces in the misery of humanity. And while there’s power in showing such sadism, Haneke’s desire to deny even a glint of hope makes him come across as being facetious, and his films as being laboured. Nevertheless, The White Ribbon is probably the best of his work, a well-shot and largely interesting examination on the various levels of abuse inherent on society.

3 / 5 stars

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