The White Ribbon

The Quiet is Worse than the Storm


Starring: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tuker

By Robert Patrick

The Golden Globes nominated, and then, without an ounce of justification, awarded “The White Ribbon” as the best foreign language film of 2009. This gives me shivers of terror. I’d go as far as to say, with total confidence, that “The White Ribbon” is the most painful film I’ve seen in sometime. To me, the pacing is non-existent. I’ve had more riveting times being stuck at the DMV, with only a soiled magazine to keep me company, than watching Haneke’s self-indulgent film about the Protestent village of Eichwald, Germany, in 1914.

Harsh enough? Good. I get a chance to give out my protrusive admiration for the film later.

The film is about a choir of children who live under the disadvantageous holy codes of their elders. The youth are chastised for minor infractions, while the parents partake in even worse offenses themselves.  The way they raise their children, based on strict moral codes and unwavering castigation for wrong doings, ends up being, for most people, totally unforgiving and contradictory to their own teachings of right and wrong. The parents of the children in question engage themselves in lewd acts of molestation, infidelity and verbal abuse. Considering the subject matter of the film, it’s no surprise that the picture is shot using stark, deliberately moody, black and white film stock.

Eventually, various atrocities befall the village as everyone goes about their daily lives. The events seem like, from their acute harshness, punishments for the township’s trespasses. No one knows who is rapping the fists of the villagers, and, from what most people say, they don’t really care enough to find out. One particular young man, simply known as ‘the schoolteacher’, tries, to at least a minimal degree, to find the culprit of these social outcries during the course of the film. I say too much more about his foray into these macabre mysteries, but the town doesn’t seem too keen on helping the schoolteacher.

In the style of many of Haneke’s pictures, the story of “The White Ribbon” gets pulled around by metaphorical undercurrents. The characters have roles, reminiscent of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, that present, when looked upon closely, an allegory for society’s animalistic contradictions that rise out from underneath a thin layer of alleged order and moralistic purity. The whole idea is intriguing. I like how this tiny town, so seemingly quiet and orderly, is an example of humanity’s political and religious myopia. The problem is that, through meandering execution and hellacious pacing, the film, as good as its exploration of mankind is, suffers from not really knowing how to ever become a movie. The opus is more of a scholarly essay about what ails us as people, than an actual semi-engaging picture. A fellow critic said that a heralded documentary about World War II, titled “The Sorrow and the Pity,” was not entertaining, but that he still enjoyed the film. The reason for that is because, despite its downtrodden and ponderous narrative, it didn’t neglect the viewer by giving into self-indulgence or succumbing to its hubris in the way that “The White Ribbon” does.

Haneke’s film is frustrating because, during its nearly three hour running time, it doesn’t employ one cinematic thrill. The film acts like an audiotape, with its narrator incessantly recalling his youth, as the story tepidly unfolds. Most of the dialogue exchanges are fraught with abuse, while the physical ones are, to go along with the film’s theme, much the same. Haneke’s work here is about as frustrating as Lars Von Trier’s “Anitchrist”, in which many similar themes emerge, violently chiseling out their perspective on laws and piousness, before totally overwhelming the viewer. I could say these filmic traits are indicative of a great artist at work – the melding of great ideas and the choice to present them in a film medium. I cannot say that I don’t find these pictures to be, even in their most portentous moments, anything less than intriguing. I admire a film that makes one think, but I hate a film that dislikes its viewer – here, I feel the sentiment of dislike for the viewer riding high.

My problem? “The White Ribbon” is excruciating to watch. I don’t claim to dislike the movie because it offers little resolve – no, I don’t mind that. I question the way that the author pushes us aside; he is, no matter what the explanation, unable to let us into his world of existentialism. “The White Ribbon” is a proudly and selfishly created film. Endlessly enigmatic and troublesome to watch, Haneke’s work will forever walk a tightrope between brilliance and overbearing pomposity.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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