In a rural German village in the last days before World War I, filmmaker Michael Haneke sees the seeds of the great plagues of the 20th and now 21st centuries.
With The White Ribbon, his quietly gripping if painfully overlong parable, the director of Funny Games and Caché suggests that totalitarianism, terrorism and intolerance sprouted from the ignorance, child abuse, superstition, religious hypocrisy and class divide of a town where the locals act out his morality play.
The Oscar-nominated film — in German with English subtitles and in sinister black and white — begins with a pair of crimes. The local doctor is injured when his horse stumbles over a trip-wire. Then the young son of the wealthy local baron is tied to a tree and tortured. Might these events be connected? No one knows who did these deeds; no one talks. The rigid hierarchy of the place imposes conformity and silence.
Then we visit the strict home of the zero-tolerance local pastor (Burghart Klaussner, chilling) and we meet the children of this village, and things become clearer. The pastor's older children, teenagers, are, in their meek ways, rebelling. He orders them to don white ribbons, which he had used when they were younger, something to remind them of their "innocence" and "purity." It doesn't work.
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Haneke tells this story through the memories of someone who knew all of the children there, the village teacher (Christian Friedel), an awkward 30-something smitten with a local nanny (Leonie Benesch) and only now, years later, piecing together what the crimes meant and how those events prefigured the evils of the future.
Seasons change, and at every turn, the teacher sees instances of reactionary provincialism, repression and fear. Resentment against the baron seethes, but no one speaks out because his farm employs almost everyone. The doctor's haughtiness, the pastor's self- righteousness, the cruelties of the parents are seen and observed by the children. And every so often, some new sadistic act shatters the quiet truce between classes and generations.
Haneke tells this tale a bit too patiently. But the metaphors are unmistakable, as is the power of the film's message. As details emerge of the lives of these children in this Village of the Damned, seeing their upbringing explains that damnation better than any documentary about the world they created ever could.