This year, it went to Michel Haneke. It’s been a long time coming for the Austrian. Considered one of the most talented directors in Europe, Haneke will be best known in the UK and US for his only English language effort, 2007’s Funny Games US. A remake of his own 1997 Austrian movie, it wasn’t the best showcase of his work. He has returned to his native tongue, and hopes this year’s award winning The White Ribbon signals a return to form.
It is a small village in Germany, just before the beginning of the first world war. The village doctor is enjoying his usual morning ride, when suddenly the horse tumbles head over hoof, severely injuring it’s rider. The doctor is taken to hospital in the nearest, and upon further investigation it seems someone tied a wire across his route deliberately.
Then, an apparent accident occurs at a mill. A female worker falls through rotten floorboards to her death. The village is shocked by these events, none more so than her son. He commits an act of revenge against the mill owner, the village baron. When the baron’s son later goes missing, then turns up tied and beaten, suspicion inevitably falls on the same man. But with the revelation that he could not have committed the crime, the village is stunned. Who in the village could have committed such a crime?
As more incidents occur, the young village school teacher tries to unravel the mystery. Could it be possible the children of the village, kept in line by the iron fists of their guardians, are responsible for this string of strange and malicious events?
Shot in black and white, with no musical scoring, the story at the heart of The White Ribbon is pretty dark. The occurrences are all violent, intended to injure or kill. The way some of the adults of the village live their lives is questionable. But it’s the strict way they treat their children, to the point of physical abuse (and in one case sexual), that shocks. This is no exploitation picture however. The more sinister parts of the story are sensitively handled. And there are no graphic depictions of abuse or violence, they are implied, or occur behind closed doors.
It’s not all bleak drama however. There is a sweet love story contained within, as the young school teacher courts a nanny working for the baron. The scenes as the teacher and the object of his affections shyly get to know each other are very well written. There are many well played out scenes that tug at the heartstrings. The pastor’s youngest son giving up his beloved pet bird to replace the pastor’s dead one almost brings a tear to the eye. One particular scene, in which the doctor’s daughter is explaining death to her younger brother, starts off amusing, and ends up heartbreaking.
The casting in The White Ribbon is outstanding. There isn’t a bad performance on show. The ensemble cast create a convincing, fully realised village community. There are some outstanding performances amongst the adult actors, particularly Burghart Klaussner as the ultra strict Pastor, Rainer Bock as the abusive Doctor, and Christian Friedel as the young Teacher. However, it is amongst the younger actors that the performances amaze. The children of the village are played in such a subtle and confident manner. In particular, the level of acting shown by Thibault Serie and Miljan Chatelain, not much more than five years old, is remarkable.
It is a relatively long film, but is perfectly paced. The slow-burn nature of the storyline may nonetheless test the patience of some viewers. Some below par CGIi in the opening scene is in danger of taking you out of the period setting. These are minor quibbles though.
The subtext of the film, the idea that the events that occur ultimately are part of a wider problem which may have contributed to the rise of fascism, is certainly interesting. Another film that opens this week, Harry Brown, also deals with youth in revolt, again pointing the finger at those responsible for the children. Whilst The White Ribbon attributes some blame to the harsh discipline endured by the German kids, the opposite is true in Harry Brown, where a lack of discipline appears to be the problem. The root cause however, the abuse of these impressionable young children, is the same in both cases.
If we study history to learn from it’s mistakes, what can we expect to happen in our own society over the next twenty years? It’s a frightening question. One of many that are asked by The White Ribbon, with few answers on offer. I can definitely recommend Michael Hanneke’s offering, it’s a fine film, and possibly more relevant today than we’d like to admit.
The White Ribbon is released in the UK this Friday 13th November