The film's title refers to the loss of innocence. Crisply shot in black and white, the film is set in a rural German village just prior to World War I. Voiced by an old man (Ernst Jacobi) who used to be the village schoolteacher, the story reveals mysterious goings-on.
A doctor falls off his horse, apparently tripped by a rigged wire. The son of the local baron is found beaten. A barn is burned down. So who is to blame?
As the war approaches, suspicion begins to escalate, perhaps presaging Germany's next 30 years. In German with English subtitles.
Michael Haneke's 'The White Ribbon' would never fly in mainstream Hollywood. It's too abstract; it never defines the problem or the solution. The film seems destined to confuse, confound, and infuriate. Good thing Haneke doesn't care about any of that.
Nominated for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, 'The White Ribbon' tells the story of a small German settlement governed by a Baron – who is the land owner – right before the outbreak of World War I. As the narrator explains, the story we are about to hear may not be entirely accurate, as some of the information is hearsay. We are immediately thrust into a world of uncertainty. Not knowing if what we are seeing truly is exactly what happened, but no matter, because this is how tales are told. In recounting a story, we never know all the facts, and other events may be embellished, but it's a fair way to tell the story of the town.
According to the narrator, it all started when the town doctor had an accident while horse riding. A wire had been tied between two trees for the sole purpose of bringing him down on his morning ride. Who did it? Why did they do it? That is never revealed, and for good reason. As the story progresses we meet everyone in the town, they all have their specific jobs, most work for the Baron. The town is full of children, who by the looks of it are up to no good.
Haneke portrays a time when kids were completely subservient to their parents. Caning was commonplace. The children of the town pastor receive the harshest punishments. One child is tied to the bed at night so he won't give into the temptation to masturbate.
'The White Ribbon' works on a subversive level, never coming out and telling us exactly what we should think. Instead we're left to make up our own minds. There's something not right about those children. Is it their upbringing? The harsh punishments they face at the hands of their stern parents? Are they even to blame?
My one complaint: the various characters are hard to follow because there are just so many of them. The children get lost amongst each other, and it's tough to keep track of each one.
Haneke makes the choice to film the entire film in black and white. It's beautiful photography, which illustrates the despair residing in the hearts of the townsfolk. In one of the special features Haneke explains that he shot the film in black and white, because that's how he remembers history. When he thinks about history he imagines it devoid of color.
The incidents in the town escalate as other children are beaten and disfigured. Then there's the arson and theft. I have my suspicions who committed the crimes, but you may come up with a completely different conclusion. Like the film 'Doubt,' you're forced to make up your own mind. A lesser film might have given us a deluge of flashbacks just to make sure we knew exactly what transpired and who the culprits were, but Haneke feels his audience is smarter than that. It's nice to see a movie not so obsessed with providing resolution and catharsis for its viewers, but rather supplying a chilling and desolate picture of the state of humanity preceding the World Wars.
The 1080p AVC encoded high definition presentation of 'The White Ribbon' is a unique and rewarding one.
Without color, other than grayscale, Sony's presentation still has layers of depth that pop off the screen. Blacks are extremely important here, and they're as deep and inky as they could be. With color drained from the picture, we do lose a little delineation detail during darker sequences causing objects and people to get lost in the black abyss. Also, some low light scenes involve candlelight as the only light source. Whites take on an almost metallic feeling, which is most likely due to the light present on set, rather than a defective transfer. During the daytime scenes, detail is nicely rendered. I do have one gripe though, whites burn a little hot, especially when we're taking in a wide shot of a field ready to be harvested. The problem is that the subtitles actually tend to get lost slightly on the white background. The subtitles do have a tiny black stroke around them, but at times they're still very difficult to read depending on how bright the background is.
'The White Ribbon's audio presentation comes with a couple of options. The choice I'd recommend is the German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation with English subtitles. The other option is for English narration, German Dialog subbed in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
Mainly a dialogue based movie, 'The White Ribbon' doesn't falter one bit when it comes to producing clean, precise dialogue. The rest of the soundfield is a bit sparse, as Haneke eschews any sort of background musical soundtrack. Ambient sound is present during scenes when the townsfolk gather together to have a party and dance. This is also one of the only scenes that contains any sort of music besides the church choir scenes. LFE is non-existent, but there's really no need for it – although the trailer for 'Get Low,' which shows before the menu pulls up has some booming intense bass that is surprisingly loud. The soundfield, like the video has been drained of any unnecessary frivolity. Even though this is far from a demo-worthy audio presentation, this is exactly the way Haneke intended it to sound.
'The White Ribbon,' is a slow, methodical film that portrays humanity at its most chilling and most destitute. Even without so much as a slap presented on film, we still get the idea that great violence and unrest is taking place in this little community. Juxtaposed with the oncoming war, 'The White Ribbon,' shows the problems with mankind that may have led to war. The black and white video, for the most part, looks gorgeous. There's a reason why it was nominated for Best Cinematography. The audio is reserved, as it should be given the nature of the film, but does its job very well. The special features are another nugget of gold to be mined in this release. They are revealing features that give deeper insight into the vague conclusion of the film. Haneke shares exactly why he did what he did, making the special features an absolute must. This stunningly stark German film comes highly recommended.