TRCH Priscilla

The White Ribbon

9 June 11 words: Tom Grater
The brutal realism of the film is where the emotion is found; the believability never compromised by embellishing the mysterious goings-ons
 Christian Friedel and Detley Buck in The White Ribbon
If there is one thing that particularly stands out about The White Ribbon, it’s that it is so understated it verges on non-existence. Driven by a narrative pace that is akin to a particularly lethargic sloth, and rarely containing dialogue that is spoken at more than a whisper, you could be forgiven for thinking that the film was lacking enough weight to capture an audience. However, you'd be wrong...
Testament to this is that the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival in 2009, one of the highest accolades in world cinema. Some people possess the preconception that, for a film to triumph at Cannes, it must be foreign and a bit avant-garde. However, many accessible films have won the Palme d’Or, including Pulp Fiction, Fahrenheit 9/11, Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver. The one overarching factor that does encompass virtually every film to ever win the award is that they are all divisive. The White Ribbon is undoubtedly that; while its subject matter may be too dated to cause controversy, the way the film goes about its storytelling will leave many viewers feeling perplexed, while others will feel fulfilled.
The film is a mystery crime story, akin to whodunits like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Poirot.  However, The White Ribbon is a far more sinister concoction and the mystery element takes a back seat to the film’s other themes. The story is set in the Germanic countryside, at a time when WWI was creeping over the horizon. In this case our Marple is the rural village’s schoolteacher, voiced and acted by Christian Friedel. When peculiar incidents begin to affect the village’s residents, he takes it upon himself to begin a half-hearted investigation. Unfortunately he is not much of a detective, and acts more as a bystander to the film’s sinister events, much like us, the viewer.
Michael Haneke, the film’s director, describes The White Ribbon as an exploration of, “the origin of every type of terrorism; be it of political or religious nature”. There is certainly a religious subtext contained within, ‘though it surfaces at only occasional moments and is never tackled head-on. The film also briefly touches on the existing political terrorism of the time, giving mention to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, by the Serbian Black Hand Gang. It was an event that turned out to be the catalyst for fully-fledged war across Europe, and the unease of Germany’s rural population is captured here.
It’s difficult to say much about the film’s plotline, which is rather sparse. The narrative trundles along at an incredibly slow pace, though to the production’s credit, it never bridges into tedium. The jump-starts in plot, of which there are a few, do provide an interesting contrast to the majority of other scenes but the distinct lack of build up or lingering emotion means that they do not deliver as much of an impact as they perhaps might have. Clearly this is a ploy by the director, a deliberate attempt to unseat the audience from their film-gazing comfort zones. The White Ribbon replaces traditional suspense and tension with a brooding intensity; it is a very different approach to the mystery genre, and stands out on its own. The only example that bears comparison is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, which is basically a rubbish version of this film.
Some of the camera work within The White Ribbon is very aesthetically pleasing, and occasionally you get the impression it is about to break out into the sublime. Unfortunately, in keeping with the feel of the rest of the piece, you can sense the cinematography being reigned in. All the acting is solid; even the group of children whom the film focuses around - who collectively are reminiscent of the creepy kids in Children of the Corn - put in virtually flawless performances. This is a contributor to one of the film’s greatest assets – the entire thing is believable. The brutal realism of the piece is where the emotion is found, and the fact that it never compromises its believability to embellish the mysterious goings-ons means that it has the capacity to be engrossing.
The White Ribbon, as a deliberately divisive piece of cinema, could never satisfy a mainstream audience and will leave every viewer with a sense of either melancholy or frustration. Far from being a traditional mystery crime film, it attempts to achieve something different with its slow-burning pace and minimal plot development. The White Ribbon is certainly not for everyone, but it will surprise the majority of viewers by making two and a half hours of not a lot actually seem rather interesting.

The White Ribbon official website