Directed by world-renowned filmmaker Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon opens with the contemplative voice of a weary narrator. The narrator, who speaks in German but is subtitled in English, is an old man looking back in confusion at the strange events that had occurred in a village in the two years before World War I. In doing so, he suggests to the audience that the strange occurrences may shed some light on the brutality that later occurred.
The film is set in a small German village, taking place as the country is about to enter World War I. The village is a close-knit idyllic farming community when the one most important building is their church and no one locks their doors. Following the traditional societal norms of the time, children are meant to be seen and not heard, and masturbation is still believed to cause physical ailments as well as moral impurity.
The movie first gives a cursory glance over the village as a whole, introducing the viewer to the outward images its inhabitants project. Then, slowly, the narrative descends into the dark underbelly of each household, where the stern reprimands and affectionate compliments displayed in public gives way to hidden brutal beatings and sexual abuse. From early on, there are clear indications of unrest in the ostensibly utopian farming village. The landowner who employs over half the inhabitants of the village is an unpopular baron who often makes people work in unsafe conditions. The pastor deifies himself to his family, granting his children either heavy-handed punishment or absolution on whim. While he supposedly loves them, this “love” allows a strict form of so-called mutual respect to take the place of natural tenderness.
As the unspoken tension grows, the villagers begin experiencing darkly manipulative “accidents.” In the opening shot, the doctor is the victim of the first when he is thrown violently off his horse, breaking his arm, due to thin wire tied on the path from the road to his house. Then a farmer’s wife falls through the floorboards of her house. Incidents soon escalate in intensity and frequency. After a Thanksgiving festival, the baron’s son is found hanging upside down in a barn with his pants pulled down and his buttocks beaten and bleeding. Windows are mysteriously left open and an infant runs a high fever. A mentally disabled child is found in the woods, tortured and left with the note with a biblical quote: “The sins of the parents will be visited on the children of the third and fourth generation.”
The sweet smiles of the blond- haired, big-eyed children become increasingly grotesque as the film reveals each household and child in greater depth. The saccharine, placating voice of Klara, the eldest daughter of the village pastor, is rendered untrue by the defiant malice that occasionally flickers in her eyes. Children travel through the village in large groups dressed in somber clothing, providing a sinister effect.
Haneke’s brand of horror is subtle. He rarely shows actual acts of violence and instead concentrates on small details, such as the way a son carries the whip to his father before he is beaten or the muffled cries of a 14-year-old girl as she is sexually abused. The actual atrocities occur behind closed doors. Similarly, the only “accident” shown on screen is the opening shot of the doctor being thrown off his horse.
The medium of the black-and-white film enhances the unsettling tone of the mystery. The colorless landscapes and characters gave an ironic feeling of nostalgia to the film. Some shots in dark settings are framed so that over three-quarters of the scene is pitch black with dramatic white highlights. The dark recesses of the screen heighten the tension and anticipation of the audience, who remain unsure of what lies within.
The movie brims with dark symbolism and irony as perverted morality transitions to systematic violence. Presenting its viewpoint on two generations – one meant to take responsibility for World War I and the second implicated in World War II – the film examines evil in humans, who are motivated by emotions ranging from acts of passion to cold, detached cruelty. Fascinating and horrifying, The White Ribbon manages to hold its viewers’ attention for nearly three hours. It has garnered numerous awards, including the American Cinematographers Award and Best European Film, and was nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards.